Hill-Weld: Miscarriage of Justice

Cyntoia Brown and the case for sentencing guideline reform.

by Teddy Hill-Weld | 1/15/19 2:20am

A longstanding debate in philosophies of law goes something like this: We place power in our legislatures to create and enact laws, and in our courts to apply those laws to cases before them. When courts encounter a case that does not fall clearly inside or outside of existing laws, do they still have the authority to decide what the just result is, and what the scope of their discretion is in deciding that justice? Either way, the court must make a decision about the interpretation of the law — choosing to follow the explicit letter of the statute for the sake of precision still allows a judge to decide what is within the scope of the law and what is not. This means that regardless of what decision is made, it will be a verdict on whether the facts of the case fall within the bounds of one law and not another. Midway through readings for class on this very debate, my phone alerted me of a case that exemplifies this concept and the importance of navigating it carefully and thoughtfully: the commutation of Cyntoia Brown by the governor of Tennessee.

Last Monday, Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Cyntoia Brown, a 30-year-old woman serving a life sentence in a Tennessee prison. The complexities of her case perfectly illustrate the impossible task of a legislature to write every exception and particularity into a law, and the importance of judicial discretion when applying those laws so as to serve justice and not simply an incomplete statute. Brown was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery and given a minimum of 51 years served prior to parole under Tennessee state law. A quick look at the outline of her case would suggest that such a sentence is deserved: after all, she herself admitted to committing the crime, and she fled the scene with belongings from the victim’s home. Cut and dry felony. But to decide as such would be a deliberate move to elevate the importance of the facts of her case that explicitly apply to Tennessee statutes on murder rather than to weigh them alongside the circumstances within which she committed her crime. If the letter of the law is superior in all instances, then there would be no reason to look further. But if we believe that law is something more, that there is a greater sense of justice that legislators are trying to capture and that judges are tasked with executing with their guidance, then no statute can absolutely determine the importance of any one set of facts.

If, instead of starting from what Tennessee law has explicitly criminalized, we begin from the circumstances Cyntoia Brown found herself in, the applicability of the statute becomes far less cut and dry. For starters, Brown was a 16-year-old victim of sex trafficking, who was coerced into sex work and, in the final instance, the bed of a man nearly three times her age. Her physical safety, food and shelter weren’t guaranteed facts of life­ — they were conditioned on her capitulation to cruel abusers with no concern for her mental and emotional wellbeing, but merely for her physical capability to serve their needs. What law could possibly describe these circumstances and provide a course for assigning liability and administering justice? Brown was found competent to be tried as an adult, and the simplified facts of her case were found sufficient to trigger the mandatory-minimum sentencing of life with 51 years before the possibility of parole. Is that justice?

Governor Haslam, in his final days in office, decided to take mercy on Cyntoia Brown. But simply praising his role in administering justice leaves people open to accepting the mechanisms that created the circumstances he needed to rectify in the first place. Since the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, judicial discretion in the sentencing phase of trial has been significantly constrained so that legislators could campaign on law-and-order platforms. But those laws prevent the balance of power I brought up before. Legislative power doesn’t even have to be abrogated in order to allow for a better administration of justice, it simply means that statutes defining behaviors people wish to discourage shouldn’t reach into the sentencing process. A case like Brown’s could have still resulted in a guilty verdict, but her coercion should have allowed the judge to both condemn her crime and put her on a path to rehabilitation and growth rather than confinement and stagnation.

If Americans want to administer justice, we have to admit that particularities can complicate not what we think is wrong in the first place, but what we think our response ought to be.