It’s an extraordinary story: Cyntoia Brown was arrested as a teenager for murdering a man who’d hired her for sex, and despite being only 16 years old at the time of the crime, she was tried as an adult and received a life sentence.
Her case gained national attention after celebrities like Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West began sharing Brown’s story on social media, and in January 2019, the governor granted her clemency. Brown was released from prison seven months later in August 2019, after spending 15 years behind bars.
Today, Brown is a free woman, and speaks often about her experience with the judicial system and criminal justice reform. But little is known about the man she killed, aside from what Brown told police and comments that his family have made over the years.
Who Is Johnny Michael Allen?
Johnny Michael Allen, a 43-year-old real estate agent, is believed to have picked up Brown near a Sonic restaurant in East Nashville, Tennessee on August 6, 2004 and propositioned her for sex, according to court documents. Brown, who’d been sent out by the 24-year-old boyfriend and pimp she’d been living with and ordered to make money, got in the car with Allen, but instead of going to a hotel, Allen took Brown to his home.
Allen lived alone as he was previously married but had gotten divorced in 1999, according to the Nashville Scene.
He also had a military background, according to Brown’s account. During her interview with police, Brown claimed that Allen told her that he used to be a sharpshooter in the Army, one so skilled that he could “shoot the eye out of a piss ant,” court documents state. Allen also kept a large collection of guns in his home that Brown said he showed off to her in an apparently threatening display, Brown said.
Because of this, Brown said she feared that Allen was planning to kill her after he reached over under his bed while the two were lying together and she had spurned his advances. At that moment, Brown grabbed a handgun from her purse on the nightstand and shot Allen once in the head — killing him.
Allen, who lived in Tennessee at the time of his death, was born in North Carolina to James and Caroyln Allen; he was laid to rest in his hometown of Stanly County, North Carolina, online records show.
But while prosecutors and the defense agreed that Allen picked up Brown that day to proposition her for sex, it’s a motive that Allen’s loved ones say they doubt, according to The Tennessean.
Debby Heughan, a friend of Allen’s, told the outlet in 2004 that “God probably put him in her path to make a choice.” She later described Allen as “the one person who was going to help [Brown] turn her life around. That’s sad.”
Allen was a youth pastor who taught Sunday School, according to the Nashville Scene. Allen had even started a homeless ministry at Lakewood Baptist Church in Donelson, Tennessee, where he attended services, Ben Lamb, a friend of Allen’s, told Fox17 last year.
“I honestly believe he was trying to help her and he was not trying to solicit her for prostitution that night,” he told the station.
Anna Spurlock Whaley, the spokesperson for Allen’s family, made similar statements during an interview with Nashville’s News Channel 5 last year, telling the station that they believe that Brown intended to rob Allen, while Allen had good intentions toward Brown.
“I feel Johnny was trying to help her that night,” she said. “Johnny lost his life and, in the end, I think Johnny ended up saving Cyntoia’s life. She would have died on the streets of Nashville if she continued on, if she had not gone to prison, so Johnny ended up saving her life anyway.”
Jeff Burks, the lead prosecutor who argued against Brown in 2004, did not argue that Allen hadn’t picked up Brown that day believing that she was a prostitute; commenting that it “was a fact from start to finish" in an interview with Fox17. However, in an interview with WKRN last year, he maintained his position that Brown was not a victim and that she murdered Allen in order to rob him.
“It’s been incredibly traumatic for [Allen's family] and they are the victims," said Burks, who is no longer with the DA's office. "Johnny Allen is the victim and his family is the victim. It’s unfortunate that that’s kind of gotten overlooked.”
Perhaps complicating his family's defense are lawyers' noting that Allen had previous interactions with younger girls that appeared far from innocent. One witness, a 17-year-old waitress named Jessica Snyder, testified that she and other female servers at her restaurant would routinely argue over who had to serve Allen because he made them uncomfortable, the Nashville Scene reports.
Allen once gave her his business card and propositioned her for a date, she claimed. However, Snyder's testimony was not heard by the jury because the judge deemed it "irrelevant," according to the outlet.
The second witness that the defense brought in to comment on Allen was a woman named Sandra Liggett, who'd met Allen at a restaurant the same year that he was killed, according to 2008 court documents. She said that, following a date, he took her back to his house and kissed her in his bedroom; when she said that she "didn't want to do this," Allen gave her a "hard stare" that was "scary," she said. After she asked him to take her back to her car, Allen ignored her and began kissing her again, she claimed.
He then began taking off her clothes and the two had sex, with Liggett stating that she went along with it because she was "too scared to fight him."
However upon cross-examination, she also testified that Allen did not threaten her or physically force her to have sex by pining her onto the bed, records show.
After the encounter, Liggett chose not to report what had happened to the authorities because she didn't think she'd be believed and preferred to handle it privately, court documents state.
"I was too ashamed," she said during her testimony, according to the Nashville Scene. "I guess I blame myself for it."
She also said that she did not want to testify during Brown's trial, and it was only after being subpoenaed that she did, court documents show.
It's unclear how much of an impact Liggett's claims had on the case, if it had any effect at all. Regardless, Brown would go on to be found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. She served 15 years of her sentence before she was freed, and she went on to get married and start a new life.
Today, Brown has been apologetic toward Allen's loved ones and the few public statements they have made other the years. Speaking to NBC’s “Today” in October, Brown said that the reaction of Allen’s family to her release is “completely understandable.”
She also offered an apology, stating, “They’ve lost a loved one, and I took that person from them, and, you know, of course I would tell them that I apologize. If they would ever want an opportunity to speak with me, I would be more than happy to [speak with them].”
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