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During the first-ever public conversation between former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and sex trafficking victim and convicted murderer Cyntoia Brown-Long, the two agreed that significant improvements are needed in the criminal justice system. On March 15, Brown-Long and Haslam came together for Vanderbilt’s first public lecture at Langford Auditorium since the COVID-19 pandemic halted similar events for nearly two years.
Haslam granted clemency to Brown-Long at the end of his term in 2019. The two have since developed a friendship that has jumpstarted their conversations on the state’s need for criminal justice reform. Tuesday’s discussion with Brown-Long and Haslam, which was moderated by Chris Slobogin, Milton R. Underwood Professor of Law, director of Vanderbilt Law School’s Criminal Justice Program and affiliate professor of psychiatry, focused on ideas for improvements in the justice system and the vital role of faith in decision-making by both Brown-Long and Haslam.
Brown-Long noted that after her conviction for killing her sex-trafficker at age 16, a Tennessee law would have prevented her from the opportunity for parole until she was in her 60s. “It’s absolutely ridiculous to consider 51 years a chance for parole,” she said. “When you get out, where are you going to go? What life is there after that? They said, ‘Let’s make it look good,’ but it’s just a life sentence dressed up in a skirt.”
Haslam mentioned how he waited too long even to consider clemency petitions. “I made a big mistake as governor,” he said. “It is really hard to be just and merciful at the same time, and I didn’t leave myself enough time.” Although Haslam may have delayed the timing and decision, clemency was not denied, and he knew that commuting Brown-Long’s sentence was an “easy one.”
The in-person and livestreamed event was hosted by the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy.