CINCINNATI — A federal appeals court seems poised to consult the Tennessee Supreme Court before they rule on the case of Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman serving a life sentence in prison for a murder she committed at 16.
Brown's attorneys this year appealed to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, arguing her life sentence was unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that giving juveniles life sentences without parole was cruel and unusual in most cases.
Brown, now 30, of Nashville, Tennessee, has been locked up since 2004, when she was convicted of shooting Nashville real estate agent Johnny Allen. Allen, 43, had picked her up at a fast food restaurant and drove her to his home.
Prosecutors said she committed a cold blooded murder, then robbed Allen before she fled with his car. Advocates for Brown say she was a victim of child sex trafficking who feared for her life, and that her age and fetal alcohol syndrome made it impossible for her to consider the full ramifications of her actions.
Confusion over Tennessee sentencing laws dominated appeal hearing
Attorneys representing the state have argued the 2012 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court does not apply in Brown's case because she is not serving a true life sentence. They cite parts of Tennessee law that suggest Brown could be eligible for release after 51 years behind bars.
The three-judge panel in Cincinnati suggested at multiple points that if she was serving a 51-year sentence, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling might not apply.
But Brown's attorneys pushed back, citing another section of the law that says "there shall be no release eligibility" for offenders convicted of first degree murder, like she was.
Thorny questions on sentencing law in Tennessee dominated the debate on both sides of the oral arguments Thursday morning, which lasted less than an hour.
Nashville attorney Mark Pickrell spoke for Brown's legal team while Deputy Tennessee Attorney General John Bledsoe represented the state.
At multiple points, the judges read directly from contradictory passages in Tennessee code, as they tried to decipher what portions applied to Brown's case.
They suggested that they might seek clarification from the Tennessee Supreme Court before moving forward. Judge Joan L. Larsen, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, asked multiple questions about the proper way to do so.
During oral arguments in the case Thursday morning, the appeals judges repeatedly zeroed in on the apparent contradiction in Tennessee law. They suggested they might seek clarification from the Tennessee Supreme Court before moving forward.
U.S. Circuit Judge Amul Thapar, in particular, another Trump appointee, aggressively questioned the argument from state attorneys that case law had established a way to cherry pick parts of Tennessee sentencing law to apply to Brown while ignoring other parts.
Thapar rubbed his face and shook his head while questioning attorneys on dueling sections of the law.
"We're trying to guess what Tennessee is doing here," Thapar said, later adding, "The way I read this statute is that she's got life without the possibility of parole."
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has already sided with the state on this issue, saying that Brown's sentence is not entirely for life. But Brown's attorneys say the Tennessee Court of Appeals issued a conflicting ruling.
U.S. Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, said she couldn't believe a Tennessee court hadn't issued a definitive ruling on the appropriate reading of the sentencing law.
Gibbons said Brown's case "raises some interesting, tricky issues."
If the panel does ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to clarify sentencing in this case, that court could decide whether it would offer an answer. The appeals court would then take the response into consideration while ruling on the broader case.
"Can we certify that to the Tennessee Supreme Court and ask them?" Thapar said. "If they're ever going to answer one question that's the one to answer."
It is unclear when the appeals court might act, either to consult the Tennessee Supreme Court or to issue an opinion. It could be a matter of weeks or months.
No discussion on Brown's mental state during shooting
The judges did not address the argument from Brown's attorneys that she should not be held responsible for a premeditated murder at 16 because fetal alcohol syndrome had slowed her mental development.
The pending federal appeal is one of multiple tracks Brown's attorneys are pursuing in their high-profile attempt to get her out of prison. Brown also is asking Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam for clemency. The state parole board made conflicting recommendations to the governor after a hearing in May.
Brown's previous appeals have been denied. But a surge of interest from news outlets, celebrities and national legal groups has galvanized efforts that are unusual for a case like hers.
Brown was featured in the documentary "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story" by filmmaker Dan Birman. In 2016, a joint reporting project on juvenile sentencing laws by the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee, Dan H. Birman Productions and "Independent Lens" explored Brown's trial and conviction in depth.
Then, in 2017, celebrities including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West called for Brown's release, dramatically increasing the scrutiny of the case. On social media, the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown went viral.
Follow Adam Tamburin on Twitter: @tamburintweets