Cyntoia Brown: A 16 Year Old Female Teen Killer

“Are you up for some action?” Six words spoken by a 43-year-old man to a teenage girl on a dark rainy night on the streets of Nashville. Six words which would change the life of this teenager in a way she could never have imagined.

By the end of that night in August 2004, Johnny Allen was dead. Killed by 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown who then robbed his home and fled in his car, stopping only to call 911 and report a homicide.

The Disordered Life Of Cyntoia Brown

No more striking is the effect of a dysfunctional, disruptive childhood as in the case of 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown. The child of a teenage alcoholic whose life was in chaotic freefall, this was a young girl destined to be scared from her early years. Cyntoia Brown was born into chaos with a teenage mother who favoured alcohol over prenatal care and introduced crack cocaine into her system in her eighth month of pregnancy.

A young mother who herself was the child of rape and a child who was not wanted and not loved. History was repeating itself with a new baby born into a hostile and unloving environment with no care, no protection and no security.

Generation after generation had witnessed mental health problems, suicides, gun violence and substance abuse. Cyntoia Brown was most likely born with fetal alcohol syndrome, known to affect rational decision-making and impulsive behaviour.  Add this to her genetics going back through the generations and a dangerous mix was already in place.

Passed from carer to carer for the first two years of her life, her emotional development was more than muted. Our personalities are shaped by our genetics and our experiences in life, with our childhood years being most important for building a stable psychological state of mind.

The years from birth to five are the time our emotions begin to develop. We learn to love, to attach, to trust and to empathize and we build healthy emotional bonds with those around us.

As Cyntoia Brown grew she was able to achieve some security through a more stable adoptive home but the damage had already been done. By her early teens she was rebellious, adverse to authority and had an attraction to risk.  Unable to form stable relationships at home, she soon became a runaway.  Her social circle narrowed and she began getting involved in drugs, with men who dealt drugs and then with men who wanted her to work for them, with her body being the item for sale.  She entertained abusive relationships with men, finding herself dominated and abused by those around her.

Related: Teenage Brain Development & Criminal Consequences

Cyntoia Brown was being used by men. Men who were nice to her initially, gave her the attention she craved and then turned nasty.  They turned to threats and violence to get what they wanted, teaching this young girl to expect anyone being nice to her toturn at any moment.

Abused, beaten and with no self-esteem left, days are spent getting high on drugs and following the demands of her boyfriend who was really her pimp.  There are no thoughts beyond each day, no responsible behaviour and  seemingly no care about consequences.

At 16 years old, a teenagers brain is still developing.  It is making connections, building new pathways and developing the ability to rationalize, consider and take control of decisions and behaviours.  During this process, teenagers are impulsive, they are reactive and they live in the moment.  Thinking beyond their current circumstances is just not on their radar.

At 16 years old Cyntoia Brown is out on the streets, being forced into prostitution to bring money back to her abusive boyfriend.  Her meeting on 6th August 2004 with 43-year-old estate agent Johnny Allen was by chance, in a Nashville restaurant parking lot.  They negotiate a fee and she agrees to accompany him back to his empty house. At the house he is nice to her, lets her explore the rooms and gives her food but she says he had another side, one which bragged about his money, the guns he owned, showing them to her and expecting her to be impressed.

She grew uneasy she says, fearful that he could do what he wanted to her in this house and no one would know as no one knew where she was or who she was with.  When he reaches down beside the bed she thinks he is reaching for a gun to shoot her. Instead she takes out her own gun that she carries in her purse and shoots him, killing him instantly.  This is a 16-year-old girl with a turbulent lifestyle and a confused mind who has now found herself labelled as a killer.

Cyntoia Brown had killed 43-year-old Johnny Allen and now faced a criminal trial for murder. (‘Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story’ – Daniel H. Birman/PBS)

What is the criminal justice system to do in such situations?  This is a child who has admitting killing a man, that there is no doubt she is responsible for his death but can she be held fully criminally responsible for her actions? 

Furthermore, should this 16-year-old be tried in a juvenile court with a much lighter sentence in a juvenile facility likely, or as an adult, where a very long sentence in an adult prison is the almost guaranteed outcome?

Related: Child Criminals and The Juvenile Justice System: The James Bulger Case

Cyntoia Brown is assessed by William Bernet, a forensic psychiatrist based at Vanderbilt University, who realizes early this is a teenager with a troubled history and a deeper troubled mind. She is however deemed competent to stand trial and the decision is made that 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown should be tried as an adult on the charge of murder.

Her defence claims her actions that evening were self-defence, she felt threatened and defended herself in the only way she knew how.  The prosecution claims this was the cold-blooded murder of a man who was shot while his back was turned.  After a five-day trial and a jury deliberation of six hours, Cyntoia Brown is found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison equal to 51 years.  Cyntoia Brown will be eligible for parole when she is 67 years old.

This documentary not only tells the story of a teenage girl who went off the rails resulting in the death of a man at her hands, but the story of a young girl discovering who she is and reflecting on her life. The transition from a child to a teen and then to an adult is a difficult one and it is one that has been documented here through the story of Cyntoia Brown.

Cyntoia Brown serving her sentence at the Tennessee Prison for Women. (‘Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story’ – Daniel H. Birman/PBS)

Serving her sentence at the Tennessee Prison for Women, her transition from teen to adult has taken place behind bars. In the final segment of this film, you hear an articulate young woman reflecting on her life and where she is today.  A young woman who has clearly spent time understanding herself and why she is the person she is.

A young woman who could have been a teacher or a lawyer, met the right partner and had a family of her own to raise and break the cycle of her own history.  Instead, she is alone with reflections and understandings which she is unable to put into practice. She is focused on a fight for her freedom in a battle she may never win, all due to the rash actions of her 16-year-old self.

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2016, Jan 29). Cyntoia Brown: A 16 Year Old Female Teen Killer. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from


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