NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee governor's decision to grant clemency to a woman who killed a man when she was 16 had the potential to pit political interests against widespread support for her cause. Yet the governor says the decision came down to doing the "right thing."
Outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday quietly issued his decision on Cyntoia Brown, who says she was a sex-trafficking victim. However, the news quickly spread, thrilling criminal justice advocates, celebrities and other supporters who had been fighting for years to help Brown, 30.
"Thank you Gov. Bill Haslam for your decision to grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown," said U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a newly elected Democrat from New York, in a tweet. "We must reform our criminal justice system so that cases like Cyntoia's don't happen. Until then, it is up to leaders across the country with the moral compass to make decisions like these."
Law enforcement officials had opposed clemency, arguing Brown was not justified in killing a 43-year-old man who authorities said had paid to have sex with her. But celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and singer Rihanna spoke out for Brown. The governor's office received an estimated 100,000 phone calls and emails from supporters pleading for mercy.
The governor's decision was widely praised by Democrats and advocacy groups, and criticism from Tennessee Republicans was almost nonexistent.
But Haslam, who is considering a run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2020, has downplayed the effect Brown's lengthy and complicated case may have on his future political career. He told the Tennessee Journal just hours after publicizing his decision that he isn't going to analyze any possible impact until he leaves office Jan. 19 and GOP Gov.-elect Bill Lee takes over.
"Obviously there's a lot of people who think it's the greatest thing ever and some people who will be upset," Haslam said. "I think you've got to shove all that aside."
He said he didn't want to spend his final moments as governor running for another office and having those final gubernatorial decisions be influenced by a separate race — particularly U.S. Senate.
Late last year, Tennessee's senior U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander announced he would not seek re-election in 2020. Haslam immediately surfaced as a top contender for the spot. But the outgoing governor — who remains enormously popular in Tennessee, according to numerous polls — has said he won't make a decision on whether to run for the seat until after he leaves office.
To date, only Democratic Nashville attorney and former Army helicopter pilot James Mackler has thrown his hat into the bid for the open Senate seat.
"Gov. Haslam made that decision as governor," said John Geer, a Vanderbilt political scientist professor. "He is surely thinking carefully about the possibility of running for the Senate. But his thinking about the Senate likely had little direct influence on his decision concerning Cyntoia Brown."
Brown will remain on parole for 10 years after her release Aug. 7 — 15 years from the date she was first arrested. She had been serving a life sentence that required her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration.
Brown was convicted in 2006 of murdering Johnny Allen, a Nashville real estate agent. Police said she shot Allen in the back of the head at close range with a gun she brought to rob him after he picked her up at a Sonic Drive-in fast-food restaurant in Nashville to have sex with her.
Brown's lawyers contended she was a sex trafficking victim who not only feared for her life but also lacked the mental capability to be culpable in the slaying because she was impaired by her mother's alcohol use while she was in the womb.
Ed Yarbrough, an attorney for Brown, also echoed that Haslam wasn't thinking of his Senate race when contemplating whether or not to grant mercy to Brown. Yarbrough added the Republican governor likely won't face a strong backlash from voters should be run for political office.
"Now, speaking only as a voter in Tennessee, I can't imagine that this decision would hurt his political future because I think this will be a popular decision among the people of the state of Tennessee," he said. "Tennessee is a forgiving state, by and large."