Life in Prison Begins at 16

The PBS documentary "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story" asks the question: Who is responsible when family and society so fail a promising child that she turns to prostitution and murder in her teens?
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It's difficult to choose the most heartbreaking scene in Dan Birman's documentaryMe Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story. But a case can be made for one in which the 16-year-old central character, who is awaiting trial for murder in a Nashville, Tenn., criminal court, shows us her "sex list."

It's a handwritten rundown, scribbled on a lined piece of notebook paper, of the dozens and dozens of people she had sexual relationships with during her troubled adolescence. In a detached, analytical tone, she proceeds to sort them by category: rapes (there were many), consensual encounters, those that occurred while she was high on drugs, those preceded or accompanied by beatings.

Suddenly, her voice gets quiet and trails off. An internal shift has clearly taken place; she seems embarrassed and shy. We watch in horror as her damaged but brilliant brain briefly overrides her defense mechanisms, allowing in that most unthinkable of thoughts: All of this happened to me.

This deeply moving, quite disturbing film, which premieres on PBS March 1 as part of the Independent Lens series, has the weight and urgency of a Greek tragedy. The more we learn about this astonishingly articulate and intelligent teenager (her IQ was once measured at 140), the more we realize her tragic life was essentially preordained. That doesn't absolve the people and institutions that failed her along the way, but it does raise fundamental questions about responsibility and where it lies.

On the night of Aug. 6, 2004, Cyntoia Brown, a runaway forced into prostitution by her abusive boyfriend, was picked up in front of a Nashville Sonic drive-in restaurant by Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent. They went back to his house, where Cyntoia — who later insisted she feared for her life — shot him to death. She was subsequently tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.

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After Cyntoia's arrest, William Bernet, a forensic psychiatrist based at Vanderbilt University, was called in to interview her. Sensing he had stumbled upon a compelling case, he in turn called Birman, who had expressed interest in exploring the subject of youth violence. The filmmaker flew to Nashville the next day, met Cyntoia and quickly realized this was the story he had been looking for.

For the next five years, Birman (thanks to the cooperation of the sheriff's department and court system) had remarkable access to Cyntoia, filming everything from her first in-depth interview with Bernet through her criminal trial for murder.

In between, a juvenile court judge ruled she should be tried as an adult — a decision that is inexplicable on one level, inevitable on another. "The psychiatric evaluation found she was a messed up kid, and there were a lot of mitigating variables in her life that led to her being who she is — but not to the point where she could be labeled incompetent to stand trial," Birman explained.

Watch the full episode. See more Independent Lens.

To explore those mitigating variables, Birman interviews Cyntoia's adoptive mother Ellenette (who comes across as a nice lady in deep denial), her biological mother Georgina (who was 16 when she gave birth to Cyntoia), and her biological grandmother, Joan, who reveals the story's original sin: Georgina is the product of a rape. Unexpected and unwanted, she grew up a wild child. Georgina freely admits that, while pregnant with Cyntoia, she drank "a fifth a day, if I could get it." (For good measure, she discovered crack cocaine during her eighth month.)

As a result, Cyntoia almost certainly suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which can result in poor impulse control and a disconnect between thought and action. Add to that her nightmarish childhood, which involved being shuttled from one foster home to another, and it becomes clear she never experienced anything close to normal emotional development.

The night of the shooting, Birman said, "Cyntoia was creeped out by the guy, but she lacked the judgment to get up and walk out of the house." Instead, she panicked. Or perhaps, after so much abuse by so many men, she simply snapped. In any event, she grabbed a gun, pulled the trigger and Allen was dead. While the impulse to punish a perpetrator is understandable, it's hard to see how anyone, or any meaningful principle, is served by locking up Cyntoia for a half-century or more. (She's now in her early 20s.)

If there's a heavy in the film, it's the prosecutor at her murder trial who argues successfully for a guilty verdict and sentence of life without parole. But Birman gives him a chance to state his viewpoint at the end, and it's a perfectly reasonable one: His mandate is to keep violent, dangerous people off the streets, and he was doing his job. How she became violent and dangerous is someone else's responsibility.

But whose? That's the central question hanging over the film. Three generations of family members acted irresponsibly, as did her foster family, as well as a social welfare system that couldn't find her a suitable home. The courts failed her, too, although Birman notes that the huge number of violent juvenile offenders (2.2 million in the U.S. in 2004) makes assembly-line justice almost inevitable.

ITVS, the parent company of Independent Lens, is sponsoring screenings of the film in communities around the country over the next few months; they will be followed by panel discussions. (For a list, visit  this page at PBS.org.) They're likely to be lively. It's one thing to read studies about the multigenerational nature of violence and abuse; it's another to actually hear the first-person accounts of abused women and discern the deeply destructive patterns they can't quite acknowledge.

Given her thoughtful speaking style and engaging manner, it's easy to imagine Cyntoia Brown in graduate school today or perhaps entering the workforce as a promising young professional. Instead, she is in the Tennessee Prison for Women, where she reads voraciously and quietly grieves for a life that ended before it began.

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