Recently, Cyntoia Brown Long and former Gov. Bill Haslam had their first public conversation since her release from prison.
The in person and live-streamed event was hosted by the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy and was moderated by Vanderbilt law and psychiatry Professor Chris Slobogin.
Brown Long was a victim of sex trafficking and served 15 years of a life sentence for killing a man in 2004 who solicited her when she was 16 years old.
The case garnered national attention with the release of the Netflix documentary, Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story, and support from celebrities, such as Rihanna and LeBron James.
In 2019, Haslam, who served as the governor of Tennessee at the time, granted Brown clemency, by commuting her sentence to 15 years.
Her case, called “tragic and complex” by Haslam, inspired the introduction of state legislation aimed at protecting minors who are victims of sex trafficking. While in prison, Brown Long earned both an associate’s and bachelor’s degree and mentored at-risk girls to help them avoid the struggles she faced growing up.
Both participants agreed that significant improvements are needed in the criminal justice system.
The two have since developed a friendship that has jump-started their conversations on the state’s need for criminal justice reform.
The event focused on ideas for improvements in the justice system and the vital role of faith in decision-making by both Brown-Long and Haslam.
Brown-Long noted that after her conviction for killing her sex-trafficker at age 16, a Tennessee law would have prevented her from the opportunity for parole until she was in her 60s.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous to consider 51 years a chance for parole,” she said. “When you get out, where are you going to go? What life is there after that? They said, ‘Let’s make it look good,’ but it’s just a life sentence dressed up in a skirt.”
Haslam mentioned how he waited too long even to consider clemency petitions. “I made a big mistake as governor,” he said. “It is really hard to be just and merciful at the same time, and I didn’t leave myself enough time.”
Although Haslam may have delayed the timing and decision, clemency was not denied, and he knew that commuting Brown-Long’s sentence was an “easy one.”