“I would have to say the strongest persuasive point with him was the remarkable rehabilitation record she showed,” attorney Edward Yarbrough said after the governor’s announcement. “Very few people are able to retain that. Some are good in school. Some could have good behavior. Some are able to help in the prison and help other people.”
He said Brown has the rare combination of all those things.
Joseph Walker, senior pastor at Nashville’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church, told NBC News he provided spiritual counsel to both Brown and Haslam. He said he met with Brown just before Christmas at the Tennessee Prison for Women and spoke with the governor by phone two weeks later.
"I felt so passionately about this case," Walker said. "It was a way to raise the conversation on restorative justice."
The pastor said he and Haslam discussed what the decision could mean "from a moral perspective."
"He said he respected my opinion," Walker said.
Brown's attorneys said they were notified last week that she would be granted clemency. She learned of the decision early Monday morning, Walker said, adding that she was "jubilant."
Brown, now 30, was tried as an adult in 2006, convicted and given a life sentence for the death of Johnny Mitchell Allen, who paid Brown for sex. She was also convicted of aggravated robbery.
Brown previously said that she had feared for her life and pulled a gun from her purse and shot Allen, 43, while in bed with him because she believed he was reaching for a gun. Prosecutors argued the motive was robbery.
At the time, Brown was a runaway and living with her 24-year-old boyfriend, a pimp known as “Kut Throat,” who Brown said raped her and forced her into prostitution.
Last month, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Brown must serve 51 years in jail before she is eligible for release. The ruling sparked outrage online among Brown’s supporters, including lawmakers and many celebrities who have called for her release.
More than half a million people have signed petitions for Brown's freedom online and a slew of celebrities. LeBron James, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian West, Meek Mill and Amy Schumer have rallied for her release on social media with the hashtag #freecyntoiabrown. Rihanna was among the first celebrities to weigh in on Brown's case in a November 2017 Instagram post that helped highlight the need for criminal justice reform.
While in prison, Brown has earned a GED and an associate degree in 2015 through the Lipscomb Initiative for Education Program with a 4.0 GPA, Haslam said. Brown said she is scheduled to earn her bachelor's degree in May.
Brown said Monday she is committed to live the rest of her life helping others, especially young people.
"My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been," she said.