Everyone knows or is related to someone who has been arrested, convicted or incarcerated at some point. Are they really guilty? Are they being railroaded by a system that is systematically designed against people of color? Are they unjustly given ridiculous sentences simply because they happen to be in the wrong state with the wrong jury and judge presiding over their case?
In 2004, 16-year-old Cyntoia Denise Brown was arrested in Nashville, Tennessee, for murdering a 43-year-old man who picked her up for sex. Tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison, this doc shows the complexity of a child who was the product of three generations of violence against women in her biological family. However, in 2019, after nearly 10 years of legal complexities, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Haslam granted her request for clemency. The decision came as a result of a slow shift in state legislation regarding a change in juvenile sentencing laws and having seen evidence of Cyntoia’ maturity, education, and good behavior as a prisoner.
Directed and produced by Daniel H. Birman, edited and produced by Megan E. Chao, Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story provides a chronological ride through the turbulent life of this troubled young teen right up through her jailhouse rehab back into society. Watching how this young lady didn’t have a chance from the time she was born into a family with their own issues ranging from poverty to systemic racism in a state that would allow a ridiculously harsh sentence to a teen was difficult to watch. Even though she self admittedly committed the crime, it becomes apparent that it was self-defense and that her sentence was obscene.
As intriguing as this story is, the first chapter of the doc drags a bit and eventually picks up toward the last chapter when we see how folks ranging from the deceased man’s family to her biological Mom showed up for Cyntoia as character witnesses. However, the documentary only briefly touches the part of her life that Brown-Long credits with her peace today. That ‘peace’ she refers to would be her relationship with who she refers to “amazing husband” Jamie Long, who goes by J. Long.
This doc made me appreciate the freedom and joy I take for granted on a daily basis as a woman of color in America. Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is currently streaming on Netflix.