NASHVILLE — Lawyers for a Nashville woman serving a life sentence in prison for a murder she committed at age 16 will appear Thursday before a federal appeals court to argue her sentence is unconstitutional.
It is one of multiple tracks Cyntoia Brown's attorneys are pursuing in their high-profile attempt to get her out of prison. Brown also is asking Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam for clemency; the state parole board made conflicting recommendations to the governor after a hearing in May.
Brown, now 30, has been locked up since 2004, when she was convicted of shooting 43-year-old Nashville real estate agent Johnny Allen. Allen had picked her up at a Nashville Sonic restaurant and drove her to his home.
Prosecutors said she committed a cold blooded murder, then robbed Allen before she fled with his car. Advocates for Brown say she was a victim of child sex trafficking who feared for her life, a mitigating factor that should be taken into consideration.
Brown's previous appeals have been denied.
Brown's lawyers, led by Nashville attorney Charles W. Bone, point to the 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, which found that life sentences for juveniles are cruel and unusual in most cases. The attorneys also argue that Brown suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, meaning she didn't have the mental state necessary to be responsible for a premeditated murder.
On Thursday, Brown's attorneys will take those arguments to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
A wrinkle in Tennessee law makes it unclear if the Supreme Court's Miller decision applies to Brown. A legal scholar from Vanderbilt University said that question will likely dominate the debate Thursday.
Under Tennessee law, any person sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole must serve an automatic 51 years behind bars before being eligible for release.
State attorneys have argued that because Tennessee law would allow Brown to pursue parole after 51 years behind bars, when she is in her late 60s, she is not truly serving a life sentence.
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has already sided with the state on this issue, saying that Brown's sentence is not entirely for life.
But Brown's attorneys point to a 1995 amendment to the law that they say suggests life sentences must be served in full. State appeals courts have differed on which portion of the law wins out, Brown's attorneys have said.
Vanderbilt Law School professor Terry Maroney said the federal appeals court would likely exert a “tremendous amount of effort” trying to untangle that dichotomy.
“If in fact this is a mandatory life without parole case this is a very easy case," Maroney said. “The tricky part is whether it’s a life without parole sentence.
“Right now there is a very live issue under Tennessee state law whether the 51-year option still exists.”
It's possible the appeals court will send that question back to the Tennessee Supreme Court for clarification. Or they might make their own determination based on existing case law.
Maroney cautioned that Thursday's oral arguments might not offer a clear window into the court's leanings.
“It’s always hard, though, to know from an oral argument what the actual outcome will be," she said.
The legal firepower surrounding Brown is unusual. It follows international attention for Brown's case that has built in recent years.
Brown was featured in the documentary Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story by filmmaker Dan Birman. In 2016, a joint reporting project on juvenile sentencing laws by the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee, Dan H. Birman Productions and Independent Lens explored Brown's trial and conviction in depth.
Then, in 2017, celebrities including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West called for Brown's release, dramatically increasing the scrutiny of the case. On social media, the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown went viral.
Follow Adam Tamburin on Twitter: @tamburintweets