Before Ellenette Washington mounted the auditorium stage at the downtown Nashville Public Library on Saturday, Pith was bracing for hostile, pointed questions during the Q&A following the Independent Lens screening of Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story (airing tomorrow night nationally and on Nashville Public Television) — the story of a 16-year-old prostitute convicted of a 2004 murder in Nashville and sentenced to life in prison. Through Dan Birman's lens, they'd just peered into the face of a girl in pigtails — Ellenette's adopted daughter — whose short, often brutal life would stand for an adult accounting in a justice system currently with no other option.
If there was any doubt about the divisive nature of the film, it was dashed when the audience had to be admonished beforehand by moderator Jonathan Martin of WSMV to keep questions respectful. Check the comments section of this week's Scene cover story, "Life Begins at Sixteen." You'll find comments ranging from hellfire and eye-for-an-eye retribution to public-safety justifications for her life-long incarceration. Yet it's a story that may raise more questions than it answers about the questionable circumstances surrounding Cyntoia's presence in the home of a 43-year-old man who was naked when police found his body.
Far from being overtly hostile, though, some of the questions were simply off-the-wall, rendering speechless the panel consisting of Washington, Vanderbilt forensic psychologist William Bernet, Cyntoia's former juvenile attorney Kathy Evans, and victim's rights advocate Jyl Shaffer. The strangest came from a woman sitting behind Pith, who launched into a rambling soliloquy on the parallels between life sentences for juveniles and pedophilia, prison rapes perpetrated by guards and the lawsuits that could subsequently be filed. This way, she assured Washington, Cyntoia could regain her freedom. Upon finishing, she promptly stood up and left the auditorium. There was something almost transcendently nonsensical about the monologue. Performance art?
On a more serious note, perhaps the most piercing observation made during the discussion went something like this: Aside from the hearbreaking and sordid details of Cyntoia's case, there is nothing particularly uncommon about it. There was none of the spectacular bungling and dishonesty found in Gaile Owens' trial, for example. Merits of the process aside, the criminal justice system functioned exactly how it is currently designed to work. Juveniles accused of exceptionally violent crimes are tried as adults. Those convicted of first-degree murder get life sentences.
Ignoring the questionable conclusion of premeditation by the jury, the problem, Dr. Bernet posited, is the fact that teenagers develop. They grow. And if Cyntoia Brown had one friend in the audience Saturday who could attest to that — without getting shouted down by the lock-her-up-for-life crowd — it would have been Preston Shipp. The former assistant attorney general was sitting near the front. He personally argued against her case before the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2008. Theirs is a remarkable story detailed in the Scene piece linked above.
If you couldn't make it to the screening, check out the film on NPT-Channel 8 at 9 p.m. Tuesday.