Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story Movie Poster Image
Docu about teen sentenced to jail; mature themes, violence.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 96 minutes

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age 16+
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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Juveniles should be treated differently from adults when they commit crimes. Many kids who end up in the criminal justice system often begin life as the victims of alcoholic or abusive adults. Criminal justice reform should treat more juveniles as people who can be rehabilitated instead of throwing them into prison for decades.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Brown examined her life honestly and took responsibility for her actions. Through therapy, hard work, and education she earned herself a future outside of prison.


Violence was a huge part of Brown's life starting at the earliest age. Her mother drank through the pregnancy. She was drunk through Brown's first two years of life until she gave her daughter up for adoption. When Brown was 16, under pressure from her pimp, and her judgment marred by drug use and a history of physical and sexual abuse, Brown feared a john would harm her and shot him to death. Her biological mother and grandmother both describe being raped and beaten by men. Brown's pimp would beat her and raped her if she didn't return from working with enough money.


In 2004, when Brown was charged at age 16, she was labeled a "prostitute." Years later, when her case was reevaluated, she was re-labeled an underage victim of sex trafficking by adults. She describes being in bed with a john but avoiding having sex with him.


"F--k," "s--t," "bitch," "slut," piss," and "hell."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Alcoholism and crack cocaine use are discussed. A 16-year-old girl says she drank and used cocaine through her childhood.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story is a 2020 documentary about a 2004 juvenile murder case tried in Tennessee in adult criminal court. Despite evidence that the 16-year-old Brown was a victim of sexual abuse and coerced into sex trafficking/prostitution, the trial resulted in a life sentence. The filmmaker, who followed the case for years, credits the unrelenting work of several dedicated defense attorneys over many years, coupled with the more recent national attention the case received on social media, with putting Tennessee's actions in the spotlight and resulting in Brown's early release in 2019. Sex-trafficking, rape, prostitution, crack cocaine use, alcoholism, and generations of mental illness and physical abuse are discussed broadly. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "damn," and "bitch."  

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Kid, 7 years old June 2, 2020

What's the story?

MURDER TO MERCY: THE CYNTOIA BROWN STORY is a critique of a justice system that punishes juveniles who have committed serious crimes more harshly than may be necessary. Brown was a drug-using 16-year-old runaway when she was arrested for shooting and killing a john. Her pimp, a violent drug user, sent her from their hotel room to turn tricks and bring back money to fuel their drug use. He would beat and rape her if she didn't earn enough money. In her paranoia, she claims, she shot a john she thought was going to kill her. Lawyers and psychologists defending her over the years eventually learned that her biological mother drank heavily through pregnancy, leaving the otherwise highly intelligent Brown struggling with lifelong effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome -- severe impulse control issues, depression, mood swings, paranoia, and other mental problems. After repeated efforts to appeal her life sentence for first degree murder, her attorneys finally persuaded a parole board to advise Tennessee's governor that Brown, remorseful and with two college degrees earned in prison, was worthy of a second chance. She was released on parole at age 31. Today she performs community service and mentors at-risk girls. Tennessee has since revised and revised its law requiring that juveniles convicted of first-degree murder serve mandatory 51-year sentences without parole.   

Is it any good?

The movie is a clear-eyed rebuke to any justice system that doesn't take into account inter-generational, repeating cycles of abuse in families. Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story underscores the way that the 16 -year-old Cyntoia bore little resemblance to a normal 16-year-old, yet she was treated as if she were one by police, prosecutors, judges, and appeals boards for more than a decade. Psychologists observed in her a pattern of mood swings, depression, paranoia, faulty impulse control, and drug use, and documented that she'd been trafficked by an adult pimp, although the courts had originally categorized her as a prostitute. The documentary applauds all those who stood up for her right to be seen as a person damaged from before birth, who was nevertheless fully willing to take responsibility for her actions while still asking for a second chance.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what qualities Brown displayed in Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story that make her admirable. Do you think that she is truly rehabilitated? Why or why not?

  • Brown earned two college degree in prison. In what other ways do you think her life may have been turned around by incarceration?

  • Do you think other juveniles who were tried as adults and ended up in prison may also be able to turn their lives around? Why or why not?

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