Federal appeals judges said Thursday they’re considering asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to clarify whether a woman serving a life sentence for killing a man when she was 16 can ever gain parole.
The three-judge 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel heard arguments Thursday in the case of Cyntoia Brown, who has attracted celebrity support.
Attorney Mark Pickrell said Tennessee’s laws “are completely ambiguous” on parole eligibility and that her sentence is unconstitutionally excessive. John Bledsoe of the Tennessee attorney general’s office disagreed, saying she has the possibility for parole after serving 51 years.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, but Tennessee has argued successfully in lower courts that Brown will have a chance for parole.
“The law is not unclear,” Bledsoe said.
Brown, now 30, would be 68 after serving 51 years. Pickrell said she could be told decades from now that the state considers her ineligible for parole if the appeals court lets stand now what he says is an unconstitutional sentence.
“That kind of miscarriage of justice should not be on the table,” Pickrell said.
Judge Amul Thapar said the appeals court could certify the question of her eligibility for Tennessee’s high court to answer before ruling. The judges didn’t say how soon they will act. The 6th Circuit hears appeals cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
There was no discussion during the oral arguments on the other part of Brown’s appeal: Her attorneys contend she lacked the mental state to be culpable in the 2004 slaying, impaired by her mother’s alcohol use while she was in the womb.
Her attorneys say Brown has turned her life around. They have a request for clemency pending before Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
Celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and singer Rihanna, are part of a social media campaign to get Brown released.
Advocates say she was a teen sex trafficking victim who received an extremely harsh sentence. Police have said she shot real estate agent Johnny Allen, 43, in the back of the head at close range after bringing a loaded gun to rob him.