At the age of 16, Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for shooting a man who threatened her life. On Friday evening, six months after receiving clemency and 15 years since the original sentence, Brown spoke to more than 100 students at Binghamton University.
BU’s Black Student Union (BSU) hosted Brown as this year’s keynote speaker, concluding the events held to celebrate Black History Month on campus. Brown’s story received mass media attention when she was still in prison, with many sources pointing to her experience as an example of injustice within the U.S. criminal justice system. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian West, Drake, Amy Schumer, Rihanna and LeBron James drew attention to the case by expressing their support for Brown over social media. On Aug. 7, 2019, Brown was officially given her freedom after serving 15 years of her life sentence.
Gina Arcidiacono, a senior double-majoring in human development and English, said she was interested in hearing Brown’s own take on the systemic injustices that led to her arrest.
“I heard a lot about [Brown]’s story on the news and I wanted to hear her own perspective,” Arcidiacono said. “I wanted to gain more insight on her experience in the criminal justice system and her take on how we can improve it.”
When Brown took the stage, she began recounting her story from childhood. Brown said that growing up, she always felt like an outcast.
“Everywhere I looked, I saw how I stuck out,” Brown said. ”I was different from my family, from my friends, from all of my church members. Everywhere I looked, I just saw life through that lens.”
Brown said her feelings of loneliness led her to act out. At 12 years old, she was expelled from school and placed in an alternative school. At age 13, after multiple suspensions at the new school, she ran away from home. It was on the streets that Brown met a group of women who taught her to use her body as a “commodity.” Soon after, Brown was arrested for shooting the man responsible for sex trafficking her.
Once convicted of murder, Brown was sentenced to life in adult prison at the age of 16. Since she was still a minor, she spent two years in solitary confinement awaiting the day she turned 18.
“I was alone with my thoughts and with God,” Brown said. “I remember feeling like I had been tossed into the bottom of the well. I had no idea how I was going to get out of this situation. I was frantically trying to figure out how to avoid spending the rest of my life in prison.”
After exhausting all of her appeal options, Brown was granted clemency by former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
“When I first laid in that dark jail cell and prayed to God to leave prison, I could have never imagined it unfolding the way that it did,” Brown said. “I never would’ve imagined that God could move a billionaire, conservative, Republican governor from Tennessee to show someone like me compassion.”
During her time in prison, Brown said she restored her faith in God. Today, as a free woman, she said she hopes to continue sharing her story of redemption.
Khaleel James, Student Association vice president for multicultural affairs and a junior double-majoring in economics and human development, said he felt it was important for BSU to bring in Brown to tell her story, especially during Black History Month.
“For me, it was knowing how powerful [Brown]’s case was and hearing how much she struggled,” James said. “I wanted to ensure that I could help BSU in every way possible to ensure they could bring such an inspiring keynote.”