NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal appeals court has asked 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 Tennessean reported the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked the Tennessee high court Wednesday to weigh in before it issues a ruling in the case of Cyntoia Brown, who argues her life sentence was unconstitutional.
An appeals panel heard arguments in June in the case.
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 appeals court said Tennessee’s laws on parole appear to conflict and asked the state court to clarify the issue.
One portion of Tennessee law that says there is “no release eligibility” for anyone serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. Another section says people convicted of first-degree murder must serve 60 percent of a 60-year sentence.
The appeals court said Tennessee lawmakers have given no clear guidance about how the different parts should be read together.
“Will a defendant convicted of first-degree murder … and sentenced to life in prison under Tennessee Code Annotated … become eligible for release and, if so, after how many years?” the judges wrote in a letter.
Brown’s attorneys say she 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.