This Netflix Documentary is Equal Parts Devastating and Uplifting
The Netflix true crime documentary Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story really struck a chord with me. Director Daniel H. Birman chronicles the picture’s namesake over the course of more than a decade, combining police archival footage, news clips, and interviews (that he conducted for a previous PBS documentary) to tell Brown’s story. The existing footage (and interviews with those close to the case) provide viewers a look at the mitigating factors that drove Cyntoia to take the life of Johnny Michael Allen in 2004.
The doc is a lot to take in. Cyntoia was forced into sex work before she was legally able to give consent. Our broken justice system recognized her as a prostitute, as opposed to a victim of sex trafficking at the time she was charged (2004). And that’s a travesty, considering she was strong-armed into sex work by an older man that purported to be her boyfriend but, in all actuality, was her pimp.
The details of her eventual conviction and sentencing are heartbreaking. Not because Cyntoia shouldn’t be held responsible for her actions, but because she was a juvenile when she killed Allen. She was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole until she served at least 51 years. That harsh sentence failed to take so many crucial factors into consideration.
For one, Cyntoia alleges Allen was violent with her after propositioning her for sex. She says she believed he was getting ready to rape and or kill her when she shot him. In her mind, she was acting in self-defense. While she may (or may not) have been mistaken about his intentions, there are multiple reasons why she may have jumped to the conclusions she did.
Another point the doc calls to mind is that our system often fails to take into account the impact an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex has on a juvenile’s ability to make informed decisions. So, to sentence a child to life in prison before their brain has finished forming feels unduly harsh. Our system needs checks and balances in place that allow for reevaluation of juvenile offenders after a preset period of time. While policies and procedures are being put into effect at the state level in a number of territories, there needs to be a greater sense of urgency.
So much power is placed in the hands of judges. But when they have so much leeway, that creates the potential for white judges to sentence Black and Brown convicts to harsher sentences. People tend to relate to the experience of fellow members of their own ethnic group. On that basis, officers of the court are more likely to feel empathy for someone from a similar background. Additionally, preconceived bias often leads white judges to presuppose that Black offenders are more likely to reoffend, resulting in longer sentences.
The ACLU reports that Black offenders receive 20% longer sentences than their white counterparts via the federal court system. Additionally, Black and Latino folks charged with a crime are significantly more likely to serve prison time than white criminals. For racial groups that already face systemic obstacles, this amounts to insult on top of injury.
With all of that considered, it’s no stretch to say that the odds were stacked against Cyntoia. On that basis, she could have easily turned to drugs or other destructive means to numb the pain. Instead, she impressively opted to turn her life around. She went back to school and earned both an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree while behind bars. Moreover, Cyntoia became a mentor to other incarcerated women and used her platform to advocate for fellow victims of sex trafficking.
Her response to receiving unfair treatment by the legal system is inspirational. To see someone with every reason to give up fight that urge and continue to persevere in the face of adversity is nothing short of inspiring. Even after all of her appeals were exhausted, Cyntoia petitioned the governor of Tennessee for clemency. I won’t go any further on that, but suffice it to say that it’s an empowering and emotional account that had me fully invested until the very end.
After watching the Netflix documentary, my hope is that Cyntoia’s case will open hearts and minds to the realization that people are capable of change and that mitigating factors must be considered. Perhaps it will eventually inspire some additional checks and balances within our country’s legal system.
Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.