Cyntoia Brown walked and moved gingerly while weaving through the media throng at Clark Atlanta University on Monday, Nov. 11.
It was as if she was still filled with trepidation that she might step into a trap, somewhere and somehow, that might rush her back to prison to finish out her life sentence for murder.
Brown-Long, who languished away for 15 years in prison, signed copies of her book, “Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System.”
Afterward, Brown-Long spoke to the students at the Atlanta University Center about her remarkable and tumultuous journey from being the daughter of a junkie mother to becoming embroiled in sexual bondage and getting imprisoned for life and then miraculously getting her freedom at age 31.
On a second look at Brown-Long, however, this writer saw something else in her. Perhaps the soft-spoken woman with the disarming personality and high-wattage smile was simply moving at a deliberate pace, without any haste or angst, because she continues to drink in the gloriousness of her newfound freedom.
“I’m blessed. The transition has been seamless,” she said of her move from the Tennessee Prison for Women into a real house. “I’m just truly blessed. I have an incredible support system. I have an incredible husband. I’m just really blessed.”
Brown-Long was convicted of the 2004 murder of Johnny Allen, a Nashville real estate agent who purchased her from her pimp to have sex with the teen.
Brown-Long, who was 16 when she was sentenced, told police she shot the 43-year-old Allen in self-defense, fearing he was reaching for a gun.
Brown’s seemingly insurmountable prison predicament became a cause célèbre that attracted worldwide attention.
Most observers and legal advocates were flummoxed by the fact that a teenage girl sold into sex slavery and human trafficking would be held responsible for what adults did to her.
None other than global pop goddess Rihanna and reality queen Kim Kardashian West helped to open the floodgates of widespread support to commute Brown-Long’s life sentence.
Most people who have spoken with Brown-Long since her release from prison marvel over her ability to transform herself and her life — even though she didn’t know if she would ever get out of prison alive.
“From the moment that they told me that I would do life in prison, I did not except it,” she said. “There was always something inside of me that told me that I would not spend the rest of my life in prison.”
However, Brown-Long admitted that, at one point, her faith did begin to weaken. And that’s why she said she is thankful to God for sending her an angel in the form of her husband, former Texas rapper Jamie Long.
“For a while, my faith did wither,” she said. “And that’s I have to credit my husband with pulling me back to that place to where I know that we serve a God that not only gives second chances but also produces miracles. And then I started to change my relationship with Him and then I started to see things change.”
The first change, Brown-Long revealed, was the anger that was consuming her soul like flames had begun to dissipate and fade away like the morning mist.
“I was angry because it was a feeling of being trapped and powerless.”
Brown-Long said she also learned to forgive herself. And, most importantly, she no longer looked at her plight as that of a woman being trapped, but of one of God’s people “who was going through a trial and that He would deliver me.”
Brown-Long also apologized to the family of the man she felt she had to kill as a teenager to save her own life. “This family had done nothing. Regardless of the circumstances, they are dealing with the loss of a family member and that they are still suffering. I couldn’t help but feel compassion for them.”
At 31, Brown-Long was granted clemency by then-Gov. Bill Haslam in January, who cited her age at the time of the shooting and her rehabilitation while in prison as Brown-Long obtained her undergraduate and master’s degree while in prison. She was released this summer.
“I just feel blessed to have been chosen by God for this journey,” she said.
She referenced the Old Testament story of Joseph who was wrongly imprisoned but ended up being the second-most powerful man in Egypt when it was all said and done.
For the critics who believe that she may have gotten away with murder and gets to live her life with a clean slate, Brown-Long elucidated that this is far from the truth.
“I think it’s very important to understand that I was not exonerated. The governor didn’t just wipe away everything. I’m still convicted,” she told WABE.com. “I simply served my sentence. So, the amount of time that I’ve served is the same amount of time that someone who was convicted of second-degree murder would receive.
“And, I think that we really need to look at the amount of time that we give people for these offenses because 51 years is just ludicrous for anyone to serve.”
As Brown-Long continues to lean on her faith, she said she will appropriate the balance of her life energies helping young people to prevent them from experiencing what she lived through.
Brown-Long said she will also join forces with other advocates and organizations to continue the push for legitimate prison reform so that others condemned to outrageous and exorbitant sentences can attain the grace granted her.
She concluded, “The work definitely continues. I said last night that I won’t feel that I really have my freedom until I know that other people are afforded that same opportunity to be free.”