April 29, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Daniel H. Birman
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Tennessee, this true-crime documentary tells the story of biracial Cyntoia Brown, who was adopted by a working-class black family; was convicted in 2006 of murdering a prostitution customer when she was a teenager; and spent years in a legal system of white prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and psychiatrists.
Culture Clash: Brown and her lawyers filed appeals over the years to have her life sentence reduced, because she claimed that she killed out of self-defense and that she should not have been tried as an adult because the killing happened when she was 16.
Culture Audience: “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” will appeal mostly to people interested in true-crime cases that explore issues over how different legal standards should or should not be applied to criminal defendants who are under the age of 18.
Filmed from 2004 to 2019, the true-crime documentary “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” (directed by Daniel H. Birman) makes it clear from the start that it’s on the side of Nashville native Cyntoia Brown. She shot a man to death in 2004, when she was 16, and was convicted of first-degree murder two years later. Brown claimed the killing was in self-defense.
Her case and its final outcome have received a lot of media attention, so there’s really not much suspense in watching this film, which chronicles her 15-year saga to have her life-in-prison sentence reduced. (And if people don’t know the final outcome of the case, the title of this documentary pretty much gives it away.)
The film (which unfolds in chronological order) includes interview footage from the beginning of Brown’s case in 2004, when she was arrested for murdering real-estate agent Johnny Allen, who hired her for a prostitution encounter in his home. Allen was shot in the back of his head, while lying in bed with his hands clasped in front of him. Brown said she shot him because he threatened her, and she has never wavered from that story in her legal proceedings.
The beginning of the film shows Brown interviewed in juvenile detention, while awaiting trial. The main source of contention in her case was the sentencing she faced if found guilty. Under Tennessee law at the time, an underage person convicted of first-degree murder would get either a prison sentence of life without parole or a prison sentence of 60 years with the possibility of parole after 51 years.
Kathryn Evans Sinback, who was a defense-attorney advocate for Brown from the beginning, fought vigorously to prevent Brown from being transferred from juvenile detention to an adult jail. She lost that battle, but the documentary shows how the psychiatric evaluations of Brown were crucial to her defense. As Evans Sinback says in the film, “My job is to show the judge that Cyntoia is worth saving.” Evans Sinback, who at the time had to represent juveniles in the juvenile court system, was removed from the case when Cyntoia was transferred to the adult court system.
With a lot of up-close access, the documentary shows Brown’s evaluation sessions with forensic psychiatrist William Bernet and forensic psychologist James Walker in the months before she goes to trial. One of her meetings with Walker includes a Robert’s Apperception Test, where a patient is shown a drawing or a picture and asked to tell what they think is the story behind the picture. Her stories, as shown in the film, involve a lot of negative thoughts about betrayal and mistrust.
The teenage Cyntoia Brown reveals in these evaluation sessions that mood swings are very common for her and that she gets angry when she thinks people are trying to control her or tell her what to do. Viewers also are taken inside the meetings that the defense lawyers have to prepare for the trial, which include discussing with Bernet and Walker the results of Brown’s psychiatric evaluations.
Both doctors say that Brown was a very troubled person, with a mindset full of chaos, anger and paranoia. The consensus was that Brown has a serious personality disorder that required therapy in a residential program. But she was on trial for first-degree murder, and this wasn’t a charge that she could get off the hook for with a light sentence.
How did Brown end up in this mess? Although it’s already been covered in her trial and in the media reports about the case, the documentary shows that Brown had a very dysfunctional background. Her biological mother, Georgina Mitchell, came from a family with a history of alcoholism, mental illness and suicidal acts. Mitchell, who also spent time in prison, got pregnant with Cyntoia at the age of 16.
In the documentary, Mitchell says that she abused alcohol, marijuana and crack cocaine during the pregnancy. She eventually gave up custody of Cyntoia, because she said she couldn’t handle being a single mother. While still a toddler, Cyntoia was fostered and later adopted by Ellenette Brown (a teacher) and Thomas Brown (a truck driver), who is not interviewed or mentioned in the documentary. It’s implied that Ellenette and Thomas Brown eventually got divorced.
The documentary shows that Mitchell didn’t come back into Cyntoia’s life until after Cyntoia was arrested. Part of the reason was because the defense needed information about Cyntoia’s biological family background to explain why Cyntoia turned out the way that she did. The film also shows Mitchell visiting with her own mother, Joan Warren, because Mitchell says that she wants prove to the filmmakers how “crazy” her mother is and how her mother knows how to “push her buttons.” The two women don’t get into any big arguments on camera, but it’s clear that they have a very tension-filled relationship.
Ellenette, the quintessential fiercely loyal mother, says in the documentary that Cyntoia began to rebel as a teenager. She was expelled from public school, and she was enrolled in an alternative school, where she ran away. Cyntoia eventually dropped out of school, and moved out of her parents’ home. In documentary interviews, Cyntoia admits to being a rebellious drug abuser in her teen years and that she sought the wrong kind of attention, particularly from men.
By the time she was 16 years old, when the crime happened, Cyntoia was living in a motel with what she describes in the documentary as her boyfriend-turned-pimp Gary McGlothen, also known as Kut-Throat or Kut, where they would spend most of their time “getting high and having sex.” Cyntoia says that he pressured her to start prostituting herself, which led to her encounter with Allen, who picked her up from the street and took her back to his place.
According to Cyntoia, it was very unusual for her to go to a customer’s home for a prostitution job, since most of what she did as a prostitute took place in motels. She claims that during the encounter with Allen, she was very nervous because no one else knew that she was there, and he intimidated her because he seemed to be very controlling. She says she got even more frightened when he showed her his guns, but she wasn’t frightened enough to leave, because she was hoping he would fall asleep.
And at one point, when they were in bed together, she claims that Allen reached for what she thought was one of his guns, and that’s when she shot him with a gun that she kept in her purse. Courtroom footage shows that assistant district attorneys Jeff Burke and Lisa A. Naylor put a lot of emphasis on the fact that Allen was shot in the back of the head and then robbed by Cyntoia, as proof that it was first-degree murder. Although Cyntoia never denied that she killed Allen, she and her attorneys couldn’t convince a jury that she acted in self-defense. The jury came back with the guilty verdict in just six hours.
One of the core issues of Cyntoia Brown’s appeals in her case was whether or not Tennessee’s laws were too harsh in how juveniles were judged and sentenced in first-degree murder trials. The documentary also mentions that at the time she was convicted of murder, underage children involved in prostitution were treated the same as adults accused of the same crimes, but the law was eventually changed to classify underage children involved in prostitution as victims of child sexual abuse and/or sex trafficking.
The documentary moves along at a deliberate and meticulous pace, showing the dates and locations of each segment of footage. A great deal of time is devoted to courtroom footage (cameras were allowed in the trial, appeals and parole hearings), as well as interviews with the defense attorneys that Cyntoia has had over the years. In addition to Evans Sinback, Cyntoia’s other defense attorneys who are interviewed include Wendy Tucker and Rich McGee (who were the defense attorneys during the trial) and post-trial attorneys Paul Bruno, Charles Bone and J. Houston Gordon.
One of the major arguments in the defense’s appeal was that Cyntoia’s criminal actions were largely because she had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), due to her biological mother’s abuse of alcohol while she was pregnant with Cyntoia. Studies have shown that FASD negatively affects judgment, and a high percentage of criminals have FASD. Cyntoia’s defense attorneys argued that this was crucial evidence that should have been introduced in her trial.
The documentary includes footage of forensic and criminal psychiatrist Richard Adler testifying during Cyntoia’s appeal that he examined her in 2011 and determined that she had FASD. The state of Tennessee countered with the argument that there was no medical proof (only the word of Cyntoia’s biological mother Mitchell) that Cyntoia was born with damaged health due to Mitchell’s alcohol abuse during the pregnancy.
If the conviction couldn’t be overturned, the defense team had the goal to get Cyntoia’s sentence reduced. The defense argued that Cyntoia, who had gotten a college education in prison, was a model prisoner who had greatly matured and had turned her life around. Cyntoia, her lawyers and many of her other supporters said that she was an example of someone who was rehabilitated and worthy of being let out of prison so that she could be a productive member of society.
A series of occurrences converged to create the circumstances that led to the final outcome of the case. First, and perhaps most importantly, after years of being locked up in prison, Cyntoia’s case got international media attention in 2017, when pop star Rihanna started a social-media campaign to get Cyntoia out of prison. The hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown went viral, and other celebrities began publicly supporting the cause, including rapper T.I. and reality TV star Kim Kardashian. These celebrity endorsements were the game-changing catalyst for the case moving forward.
Secondly, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam was leaving office in 2019. He was under pressure to give Cyntoia Brown clemency, as a good-will gesture before leaving office. Whichever side you’re on, the documentary makes it clear that Haslam’s decision had a lot to do with the timing of him leaving office. It’s up to viewers to decide whether or not Haslam’s decision was a political strategy for any future career ambitions he might have.
And what about the dead victim in all of this focus on Cyntoia? The documentary gives less than two minutes of screen time to show Anna Whaley, a family friend of Allen’s, speaking at Cyntoia’s final parole hearing. Whaley says about Cyntoia: “I hope sincerely that God has transformed her life.” She adds, “Johnny’s life mattered.” It’s the only time that the documentary tries to portray Allen as a human being who had a life worth living.
Although the documentary is undoubtedly sympathetic to Cyntoia, it’s clear that her case greatly benefited from celebrities who endorsed her. And although it’s not mentioned at all in the film, you also have to wonder if a lot of people would have cared as much if Cyntoia weren’t an attractive, photogenic young woman. Preston Shipp, a former Tennessee appellate prosecutor who changed his mind about Cyntoia serving out her life sentence and testified on her behalf during a parole hearing, seems to almost have a mild crush on her, by calling her “luminous” in his testimony.
The reality is that for every Cyntoia Brown, there are numerous other people in similar circumstances who don’t have the benefit of media attention or celebrity advocates for their cases. The media and celebrity attention definitely fast-tracked the final outcome of the Cyntoia Brown case. Otherwise, she would probably still be in prison, and director Birman would still be filming this documentary.
Although “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” rightfully gives credit to the defense team that didn’t give up, the documentary could have been a little more honest (and more interesting) if it explored how celebrity connections to fame, power and wealth can profoundly affect the outcome of a criminal case. In that respect, Cyntoia Brown isn’t quite the underdog that the documentary wants her to be by the end of the film.
Netflix premiered “Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story” on April 29, 2020.