Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam granted full clemency to Cyntoia Brown, an alleged sex trafficking victim serving a life sentence for the 2004 murder of a man who picked her up and took her to his home.
After serving 15 years in prison, Brown will be released Aug. 7 and will remain on supervised parole for 10 years, Haslam (R) announced Monday, calling it a “tragic and complex case.”
Brown, whose case drew national attention and support from celebrities including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, was 16 years old when she committed the crime in what she described as an act of self-defense.
The life sentence meant she would not have been eligible for parole until she was in her late 60s, which Haslam said was “too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”
“Transformation should be accompanied by hope,” Haslam said.
In a statement read by her attorneys at a news conference Monday, Brown thanked the governor for his “act of mercy in giving me a second chance.”
“I am thankful for all the support, prayers and encouragement I have received,” Brown said. “We truly serve a God of second chances and new beginnings.”
Placed for adoption by a mother who abused alcohol, Brown had run away from her adoptive parents’ home in the months before the murder, according to court documents. The 16-year-old was living with an abusive boyfriend nicknamed “Cut Throat” who she said sexually assaulted her and forced her into prostitution.
Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old Nashville real estate agent, was a stranger to Brown when he picked her up in his truck at a Sonic Drive-In and solicited her for sex, taking her to his home, Brown told authorities.
Brown admitted to shooting Allen in the back of the head while they were in his bed, after she thought she saw him pulling out a gun. In 2006, Brown was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated robbery and sentenced to life in prison.
Brown’s story spread widely in the fall of 2017 amid the #MeToo movement. Supporters rallied around her case with the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown, calling it an example of unjust incarceration of children and victims of sex trafficking, particularly young women of color. Kardashian highlighted the case to President Trump in a meeting in May.
Attorneys working on behalf of Brown also petitioned the state’s parole board to commute her sentence, citing her experiences as a sex trafficking victim and adversities during her childhood. Experts had testified in court proceedings that Brown may have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome in utero, affecting her mental state at the time of the crime.
Brown’s attorneys also appealed her conviction and sentence with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. More than a dozen juvenile justice advocacy groups filed briefs in support of Brown, pointing to a 2012 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama that barred sentences of mandatory life without parole for juveniles.
The Supreme Court in 2016 ruled that inmates who were already sentenced as teenagers to mandatory life imprisonment for murder must have a chance to argue that they should be released from prison.
The Tennessee Board of Parole recently issued a recommendation in favor of commuting Brown’s sentence, said the governor, who issued the commutation in his final days in office.
J. Houston Gordon, one of the lawyers on Brown’s case, said the 30-year-old’s case should be seen as a “national awakening” to change laws that allow children to be placed in adult prisons.
“Her story,” Gordon said in the news conference, “should be a catalyst for a lot of others, thousands of other juveniles.”
The news of Brown’s clemency Monday drew praise from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP, as well as Hollywood actors including Viola Davis and Jada Pinkett Smith.
“We are relieved to learn that Cyntoia Brown’s sentence has been commuted — but we also know that nothing will rewind her years of incarceration,” the National Women’s Law Center wrote on Twitter. “Black girls deserve better.”
While in prison, Brown has earned her GED and an associate degree with a 4.0 grade-point average, according to a statement from Haslam. She has one course left to complete her bachelor’s degree, which she expects to finish in May.
“With God’s help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people,” Brown said. “My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been.”
Does a Muslim Community Patrol in New York City Enforce ‘Sharia Law’?
The appearance of a new volunteer patrol group in New York City spurred familiar but false accusations.
Vehicles bearing the Muslim Community Patrol Service’s name (MCPS) and emblem were first spotted in parts of Brooklyn in December 2018, prompting media personality Laura Loomer to post a photograph of one of the vehicles above the caption “The job of the people driving the cars is to enforce Sharia law. In case you never thought Sharia would be in America, well, it’s here. I HAVE BEEN WARNING ALL OF YOU!!! Time to wake up people. #NoSharia #911 #Neverforget”:
While Sharia, a faith-based code of conduct, does exist, Loomer’s post was among a cascade of falsehoods claiming that Muslims are intent on staging a takeover of the U.S.
MCPS Vice President Noor Rabah dismissed the accusation that the group’s purpose was to “enforce Sharia law”:
It’s not about “Sharia Law.” It’s about Muslims taking care of people in our community. But it’s not just Muslims. If we’re driving or we’re patrolling and we see a guy attacking a woman we don’t ask “What’s your religion? What do you believe in? Who’s your God?” We’re there for preventative measures and it doesn’t matter who’s going through what — white, black, orange, green, nun, hijabi, we’re there to help our community.
Like other local community patrol groups, MCPS members do not have the authority to arrest people. Rabah said the group had around 30 regular members, with 30 others volunteering services on a more limited basis. The photographs seen online, he maintained, captured the group’s patrol vehicle on what he called a “dry run” before the MCPS program’s formal launch in 2019.
“Most of our patrolling is going to be motor patrol,” Rabah said. “We will be driving. The goal is that with our presence, there will be a preventative measure for people who are inclined toward crime — that seeing the car would stop the average criminal. That’s one thing. Two, if we were to see something we would say something; if we see suspicious activity, if we see someone’s driving drunk [or] causing a disturbance, just by being in these areas we can contact 911 a lot quicker than someone who is in trouble before things get out of proportion.”
Besides acting as “eyes and ears” for police, he added, MCPS members are already connected to their communities enough to defuse situations while avoiding potential cultural misunderstandings.
“We’re not here to arrest people,” he said. “Rather, if we see for example a young man smoking weed — we know him, we can come up to him, greet him and say, ‘You might not care if a cop came to you right now and stopped you but you probably would care if your mom or dad found out that you were smoking weed.’”
While more than 30 members had already received certification in New York City’s Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) program and each member must pass a background check, Rabah said, the MCPS had already won the support of officials in the New York Police Department’s 72nd District and planned to work with them to receive further training.
However a department spokesperson, Sgt. Jessica McRorie, seemingly offered a negative reaction toward MCPS’ vehicles in an interview with the website PJ Media, saying “This is not an NYPD vehicle. The NYPD did not outfit or label this vehicle. This group is not officially sanctioned by the NYPD and they are subject to the law.”
By comparison, the website reported, the department endorsed another civilian patrol group, the Brooklyn Asian Safety Patrol (BASP), going so far as to allow it to use an official logo. PJ Media offered nothing that demonstrated the MCPS could, or planned to, “enforce Sharia law,” beyond engaging in the speculative hypothetical that the MCPS might somehow “apply … Sharia in its community monitoring”:
Given this background, the NYPD’s full-throated insistence that there is no link between the Big Apple’s police and the MCP suggests that the Islamic group does not enjoy the same status and training as [the Jewish patrol group] Shomrim or BASP.
If the Muslim Community Patrol is off-book and does not coordinate with the NYPD, it may apply specific readings of Sharia (Islamic law) in its community monitoring. Since some forms of Sharia advocate honor killings, child brides, and other abuses, they may directly violate some American or New York City laws.
Rabah asserted that his group’s vehicles were approved by the 72nd Precinct before the test run. “We’re not looking for someone to ‘outfit’ our car,” he said. “We’re looking for equal respect.”
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said McRorie’s remark “deserves further clarification by the NYPD.” We asked the NYPD whether they shared the site’s concern regarding “Sharia Law” and whether any officials had met with members of the Muslim patrol, but the department did not respond prior to publication.
Both MCPS and BASP, along with Shomrim, were honored by Brooklyn Borough President Erik Adams and Kings County District Attorney Eric Sanchez at a ceremony on 2 January 2019.
During the ceremony, Adams called for additional funding to be offered to community patrol groups.
Roads and bridges to get help in Cuomo budget proposal
The state will see an investment of $150 billion in critical infrastructure improvements, most of it on transportation and environmental projects, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed Tuesday afternoon.
With New York City’s subway system continuing to decay and upstate roads and bridges facing sour conditions that hurt the region’s economy, the transportation funding fight will be one of the more intense as Cuomo and lawmakers try to put together a new state budget by the March 31 deadline.
Over the coming five years, Cuomo proposed to dedicate $66 billion of the $150 billion pot to mass transit, railroads, highways, bridges and tunnels. Precisely how the money would be spent has not been detailed.
After last year’s Buffalo Billion corruption trial, Cuomo is also proposing to make certain changes to how some state contracts are awarded, including a certification form to be submitted for approval by the state comptroller and Cuomo’s Office of the Inspector General.
The budget plan, however, does not restore the full pre-audit powers of the comptroller, an authority many lawmakers say they will push to include in the final budget.
Cuomo is also proposing continuing – at another cost of $750 million annually – his economic development funding approach that has 10 regions of the state compete against each other for state money.
Man who took 2 women hostage at UPS facility is dead
An armed man who entered a UPS processing facility Monday morning and held two women hostage for several hours was shot and killed by police as he left the building with the women, authorities said.
Several officers fired at William Owens, 39, of Sicklerville, New Jersey, the state Attorney General’s Office said in a news release that did not detail the situation or explain why the suspect was shot.
Owens had entered the business at about 8:45 a.m. and fired shots, which did not strike anyone, before taking the women to a room and barricading himself inside with them, authorities said. Officials believe that Owens had a prior relationship with one of the hostages, Gloucester County Prosecutor Charles Fiore said.
The women escaped without serious injuries after the standoff in Logan Township, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Philadelphia, Fiore said.
“Multiple members of law enforcement fired at the man, who was armed with a handgun. He was pronounced dead at the scene,” the news release said.
Earlier in the day, Fiore said the suspect had been taken to a hospital after being shot but that his condition was not known.
“I heard one of my fellow employees say, ‘Run, he’s got a gun,’ then I heard the little pop of the gun, I guess, and we all ran and law enforcement took over,” employee Allen Anthony Dowling said.
Police evacuated the building and blocked access to the busy industrial park, and nearby schools were put on a modified lockdown.
Hostage negotiators talked to the suspect by phone as he held the women captive. Television news footage showed officers crouched behind a vehicle behind the building’s loading dock at the time.
Shortly before noon, as Fiore held a news conference at a township building about 8 miles (12 kilometers) away, a short burst of gunfire was heard at the scene. Fiore later said he didn’t know how many shots police fired or whether the gunman fired any shots.
“There was an intervention,” FIore said. “He did not surrender.”
Police trained in hostage situations, he said, “would make a determination as to whether or not it’s appropriate to intervene, using force at any point in time.”
Gail Wright, a woman at the scene who described herself as the suspect’s cousin, described him as “a good guy.”
“He must have felt forced, otherwise, he wouldn’t have done this,” she said.
In addition to UPS, other major companies including Amazon and U.S. Foods have operations in the area, Mayor Frank Minor said. The township has about 6,500 residents, but some 18,000 people are in the area each workday, he said.
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