By MATT MASTERS
At the Brentwood Country Club Saturday, End Slavery Tennessee held a benefit dinner that featured attorney Charles Bone, who represented child sex trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown.
About 40 people gathered to hear Bone’s story about representing Brown at the event, which was called A Voice for the Oppressed. Brown was originally sentenced to life in prison after she was convicted of the 2004 killing a 43-year-old man who had picked her up for sex when she was 16.
Bone worked as a business attorney for nearly 50 years before taking on his first criminal case — he was made aware of Brown’s case during a screening of Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story at the 2010 Nashville Film Festival.
“After seeing that documentary I was just stunned about what I thought were issues that I just could not lay aside,” Bone said.
Bone said that he enlisted the help of more than 10 lawyers who all worked pro-bono to help with the variety of legal challenges, many of which Bone had not dealt with before.
“Not one person has ever asked for a penny,” Bone said. “We’ve been in 10 courtrooms over 10 years, and at the time that Governor Haslam took his action, we were in the Court of Appeals in Cincinnati and headed to the Supreme Court.”
“The story of Cyntoia Brown is compelling,” Bone said.
Bone said that Brown’s mindset was colored by her upbringing, born to a mother who was a sex worker, a mother who drank constantly, which resulted in Brown’s condition of fetal alcohol syndrome, something that impacted her throughout adolescence.
Bone said that at the time of the murder — a crime which no one disputes — Brown was 16 but was operating with a slower development in the mindset of a 10 or 11-year-old.
“Now the laws at that time and partially today classified her in a capacity of murder so that she would be tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison,” Bone said.
Bone said that as Brown aged, developed and matured along with new opportunities in prison, she transformed.
“The way that this story kind of comes together is that you think of this woman, aged 16, developing her brain and becoming a person of intelligence and seeing her ability to speak, write, learn and prosper while she was sitting there in prison,” Bone said. “And what she found was an amazing program — The LIFE (Lipscomb Initiative for Education) Program at Lipscomb University, is indeed an amazing program where they provide a college education to their students and to students at the prison who take classes together at the prison at least one night a week.”
Brown eventually graduated with an associates degree and even gave the commencement speech at her graduation.
“Cyntoia Brown never made anything less than an A. She graduated with honors from Lipscomb University. Lipscomb University and the Tennessee Prison for Women saved her life,” Bone said. “What Cyntoia did as she grew out of her alcohol syndrome, she became a genius, and you’re going to realize it when you read her book next month.”
Brown received an outpouring of support by celebrities like Kim Kardashian West, Rihanna, T.I. and LeBron James along with the support of a coalition of advocacy groups during her sentence, coming to the attention of former Gov. Haslam, who reviewed the case.
“An amazing collation came together, never before in the history of Tennessee or maybe even in America, have you had organizations like End Slavery [Tennessee] Now, Tennessee Voices for Victims, You Have the Power, Epic Girl and Thistle Farms all come together to advocate for a prisoner,” Bone said. “Once all of those organizations learned the facts about Cyntoia, and most of them had the opportunity to meet her by visiting the prison, every one of them, with independent boards of directors, all decided that we need to support Cyntoia and we need to support the governor as he looks at a way to provide relief for her.”
Haslam granted Brown clemency on Jan. 7 and she was released from prison on Aug. 7 after serving exactly 15 years.
“Lawyers aren’t supposed to cry,” Bone said. “But I just broke down with the emotion of that action.”
Although Bone and the collection of lawyers and advocates succeeded in gaining Brown’s freedom and a chance at a new life, Bone did express some disappointment in the state of the criminal justice system and the handling of juvenile cases.
“We couldn’t convince the court that treating juveniles like she was treated was unconstitutional in America,” Bone said. “That’s my greatest disappointment, that we never found a court that would say: ‘this is wrong, this should not have happened. There should a better way to treat juveniles who commit serious crimes.’ We never found the first court that would do that.”
Bone said that while the United States Supreme Court has acknowledged that the juvenile brain has not fully developed and therefore cannot be held accountable to the same degree as an adult, the challenge still exists with both applying that knowledge to cases and addressing many of the causes of juvenile crime such as a lack of education, a lack of family support and a lack of jobs.
Bone ended the talk by answering questions from the audience and sharing a message directly from Brown.
“I believe that we are in the middle of an important moment for girls and women in this country,” Brown said in the message read aloud by Bone. “Together we can create a movement that secures a safer, healthier future for all the children in America. By cultivating awareness of what it means to be sexually exploited, to be sexually trafficked, harassed and assaulted, and the ways in which these violations present themselves, we can empower ourselves to affect real change in our society.”
Brentwood Leader for the Volunteer Group of End Slavery Tennessee Annette Valentine said that this was a unique opportunity that helps to boost awareness of sex crimes, human slavery and human trafficking, all of which exist across every socioeconomic status in the United States.
“I think it opened up so many people’s eyes. You can read about it in the news, but to hear it from him first-hand, and to feel the heart that he has for this individual is just amazing,” Valentine said. “This elevates awareness to the extent that people are using it as a household word — instead of bullying, it’s human trafficking and what can we do to combat it and what can we do to end it?”
More information about End Slavery TN can be found at endslaverytn.org.