Life Sentences – Cyntoia Brown
Uploaded on Sep 8, 2011
Cyntoia Brown could be a gifted litigator, professor Preston Shipp thought, as he discussed the moving parts of the criminal justice system with his 30 students. Inquisitive, engaged, able to parse a legal principle and trace its lineage, the 21-year-old Brown was unlike anyone he’d ever taught.
It wasn’t just that she wrung every nugget of knowledge she could from her professor. It was her active, searching mind. Whenever Shipp played devil’s advocate supporting the prevailing model of mass incarceration, Cyntoia was the one student he could count on to pick holes in his argument. That set her apart from his students at Lipscomb University, undergrads whose attendance at chapel and Bible study is mandatory.
But there was another reason Cyntoia was different. Unlike his Lipscomb students, whose futures were limitless, Shipp knew she would never become a litigator. That’s because the class he was teaching met behind the heavy steel doors of the Tennessee Prison for Women, inside fences strung with razor wire.
By that spring of 2009, Cyntoia Brown had been locked up for nearly five years. Under the terms of her life sentence, she had about 45 to go before her term was up.
It was the second year of the Lipscomb Initiative for Education, a free program that places 15 traditional Lipscomb undergrads — mostly from white, upper-middle-class Christian families — in the same class with 15 felons, convicted of crimes such as murder and armed robbery. The program was intended to address gaps left after a 1994 federal law effectively defunded Pell Grants for inmate education, despite research from the Federal Bureau of Prisons showing that education lowers recidivism rates.
In 2004, Cyntoia was already a veteran of Middle Tennessee’s juvenile justice system. Back then, she was living out of a room at a South Nashville extended-stay dive. Her companion was a 24-year-old drug dealer and armed robber known as “Cut-throat,” who had her out on a Murfreesboro Road red-light district turning tricks for coke money.
That life reached its brutal apex on a summer night that August, when a 43-year-old real estate agent picked her up under circumstances that raise as many questions as they answer. That night, Cyntoia shot him in the back of the head and stole a couple of guns from his house. She was caught, and a jury convicted her of first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery. At an age most kids are worrying about drivers’ licenses and prom dresses, Cyntoia Brown was facing an adult criminal trial for premeditated murder.
But Preston Shipp didn’t know any of this. To him, Cyntoia was a wunderkind in prison blues. For all her outsize garrulousness, she was just 5 feet 2. She wore her thick, wavy black hair just past her shoulders, and her large, expressive eyes were often rimmed with black eyeliner. She was a magnetic presence, even in standard-issue jeans with “Tennessee Prison for Women” stenciled down the leg.
Shipp was no stranger to the criminal justice system. A former Tennessee assistant attorney general, he often worked the other side in the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, arguing on behalf of the state. If an appellant claimed his trial representation was ineffective, it was Shipp’s job to argue that the defense was more than adequate. If an appellant claimed his sentence was unreasonable, Shipp argued it was appropriate and just.
During his five years in office, Shipp wrote some 250 briefs. He didn’t lose much sleep over the people he helped keep behind bars. Most of them, he thought, were exactly where they needed to be.
But over the past few years, something had changed. He’d been spending time in the prison, teaching young women like Cyntoia who seemed eager to redeem themselves and their squandered lives. In class, he led his students in scathing critiques of the criminal justice system — the mass incarceration, the neglect of victims’ needs, the damaged people who often ended up convicted, the lip service paid to rehabilitation.
Shipp began to question his long-held beliefs, and to wonder about people who’d once been nothing more to him than names on a docket. Then one day, in April 2009, about a month into class, the professor was sorting through his mail when something stopped him cold.
Among the letters was an opinion from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. It settled a case he’d argued the summer before. The judges upheld the trial court’s conviction — which meant the professor successfully defeated the appeal on behalf of the Tennessee attorney general. It was another win for Preston Shipp.
Any sense of victory he felt, however, was gone when he read the appellant’s name. It was an improbable coincidence, and yet there it was: the name of his star student, Cyntoia Denise Brown.
Shipp sat frozen in disbelief.
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