MURDER TO MERCY: THE CYNTOIA BROWN STORY features a quote at the beginning that I couldn’t stop thinking about as I watched the rest of the documentary. “In 2004, she was considered a prostitute. Today, she would be considered a victim of sexual predators.”
It’s a powerful quote, and director Daniel H. Birman spends the rest of the documentary proving how true it really was. It’s heartbreaking to watch interviews with Cyntoia Brown, particularly when she is only 16 years old.
I literally wrote in my notes, “She’s 16, but speaks as if she has already lived a whole life of despair.” Because she has. Her birth mother was an alcoholic, who more than likely gave her longterm brain damage due to fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Brown’s much older boyfriend pressured her into sex work. Imagine telling a 16-year-old girl that she needed to pull her weight in a relationship, and earn her own money. She was still just a child. However, she had grown accustomed to a life in which she needed to constantly fear for her safety. And that’s what led to the incident that would change her life forever.
For those who don’t know, Brown was sentenced to life in prison after fatally shooting Johnny Allen, when she (alleged) he had reached for a firearm to shoot her. Allen had picked Brown up at a Sonic, and taken her back to his place after asking if she was “up for any action.”
It’s a complicated case, with the prosecution arguing Brown was cold-blooded and just wanted to rob Allen. Brown’s lawyers, of course, argue that she was an abused child, forced into sex work, who feared for her safety.
Before Brown’s case was transferred out of juvenile court, her lawyer at the time said, “My job Is to show the judge that Cyntoia is worth saving.” Just think about that for a moment. This woman’s job is to prove to a judge that a 16-year-old girl, forced into sex work, was worth a second chance. That’s heavy stuff – and a hell of a lot of responsibility for that attorney.
Of course, despite hearing her story, the judge did rule to try a 16-year-old girl as an adult. They looked at her life story, and instead of seeing a troubled young person who felt trapped in an unfair and scary situation, they saw a criminal, who deserved to be punished.
You can see Brown’s naivety and hope as she writes long, detailed letters to her attorneys, thinking it will help them get to know her better and understand how best to defend her. It’s like the twisted, real-life version of Netflix’s rom-com To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, but with the added gut punch that if these letters don’t work, Brown is going to spend her entire life in jail.
Brown may have been young, but she was not stupid. The longer she was in the system, the more she learned about public appearances, judgements, and the fact that the justice system is not always just.
“The 18-year-old Cyntoia, she understands now that what people think of you and your impression on other people is very important in life sometimes,” Brown says, reflecting on how a jury will scrutinize her every move to see if she is as evil as the prosecution says.
She also says, “You gotta think about how you look and make sure you’re not doing nothing. And you got to make sure you don’t make no faces or nothing. And you got to really control yourself. That’s kind of hard for an 18-year-old.” It’s a great point because I think of my days as an angsty juvenile when eye-rolling was basically involuntary. A jury would’ve probably convicted me, too.
I realize the prosecutor in this documentary is just doing his job, but the way he presents Brown’s file, acting as if everything she does is a manipulative tactic to trick the jury… it’s just infuriating.
The documentary shows Brown breaking down in court and crying, as her defense team questions an expert on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Brown has to sit there and listen as they say she has irreversible brain damage, thanks to her biological mother drinking during pregnancy.
Then, prosecutors turn around and use that information against her, saying she is a cold-blooded killer trying to manipulate the jury. I’m sitting here, in the safety and comfort of my apartment, watching this documentary, and just screaming into the void.
MURDER TO MERCY: THE CYNTOIA BROWN STORY is hard to watch because it just seems like such a miscarriage of justice. I never want to excuse anyone’s actions, but learning about everything Brown has been through, it seems hard not to come to the conclusion that she never really had a chance.
Thankfully, this true-crime case has a happy ending, with Brown being released after 15 years in prison. Of course, the good news is tainted by the fact that an abused 16-year-old girl lost 15 years of her life to the system.
When all is said and done, MURDER TO MERCY: THE CYNTOIA BROWN STORY is a documentary that will make you think. It will make you think about the glaring errors in the justice system, about the dangerous stigma on sex work, and the rampant sex trafficking going on in this country.
It shines a light on judgment and stereotypes that allowed a child to be tried and jailed as an adult. It shows that Brown’s case needed the 15 years of struggle, because we, as a nation, needed that time to finally see Brown not as a frustrated or opportunistic sex worker, but as a scared and trapped young girl that she was.
MURDER TO MERCY: THE CYNTOIA BROWN STORY will premiere on Netflix on April 29, 2020.
*Editor’s Note: It has come to our attention that Cyntoia Brown was not involved with this documentary and it was unauthorized. For more information, please see her twitter here.