×
A Black man is serving life sentence for stealing hedge clippers. The court won't review his case.

A Black man is serving life sentence for stealing hedge clippers. The court won't review his case.

The only one to disagree was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson — the lone Black judge on the bench — who, in a searing dissent, wrote that the sentence is "excessive and disproportionate to the offense."

In 1997 Fair Wayne Bryant was stopped on the side of the road by police in Shreveport, Louisiana, for allegedly stealing a pair of hedge clippers. They told the then 38-year-old Black man that his vehicle looked like one that had been used in a recent home burglary. Bryant insisted that the clippers they'd found in the vehicle belonged to his wife. However, he confessed that he'd entered a carport in search of a tank of gas after his vehicle broke down on an unfamiliar road and this disclosure was all it took to land him life in prison.



 

Over two decades later, last week the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Bryant's request to review his sentence. Six of the seven justices backed the decision without any explanation as to why, reports The Washington Post. The only one to disagree was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson — the lone Black judge on the bench — who, in a searing dissent, wrote that the sentence is "excessive and disproportionate to the offense." Johnson drew a straight line from slavery to the state's habitual offender laws, which she said enabled prosecutors to send Bryant to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for the rest of his life.



 

Johnson — the court's first Black chief justice — called back to the years following Reconstruction when Southern states introduced extreme sentences for petty theft of the likes of stealing cattle and swine, to criminalize recently freed African Americans who were still struggling to come out of poverty. Similar to the Black Codes before them, the Pig Laws allowed these states to sentence former slaves to forced labor, leading to the Black prison population explosion in the Deep South starting in the 1870s. "Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans," Johnson wrote, adding that this practice then evolved into Louisiana's habitual offender laws which gave prosecutors the opportunity to seek harsher sentences for lesser crimes if a defendant has previous convictions.



 

According to The Lens NOLA, a nonprofit news site based in New Orleans which first reported the court's decision on Bryant's case, the habitual offender laws have drawn severe scrutiny over the years for permitting excessively harsh sentences and driving mass incarceration. Nearly 80 percent of people incarcerated in Louisiana prisons under the habitual offender laws in are Black, the nonprofit reported. Bryant—who has spent nearly 23 years at Angola, the country’s largest maximum-security prison and the site of a former slave plantation—had four prior convictions.



 

He was first convicted in 1979, for the attempted armed robbery of a cab driver and was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. Johnson pointed out the rest of his three convictions were nonviolent as they were for possession of stolen property in 1987, attempted forgery of a $150 check in 1989, and burglary of a house in 1992. "Each of these crimes was an effort to steal something. Such petty theft is frequently driven by the ravages of poverty or addiction, and often both," she wrote in her dissent, reports NPR. "It is cruel and unusual to impose a sentence of life in prison at hard labor for the criminal behavior which is most often caused by poverty or addiction."



 

Johnson also pointed out the cost associated with the continued incarceration of Bryant, writing: "Since his conviction in 1997, Mr. Bryant's incarceration has cost Louisiana taxpayers approximately $518,667. Arrested at 38, Mr. Bryant has already spent nearly 23 years in prison and is now over 60 years old. If he lives another 20 years, Louisiana taxpayers will have paid almost one million dollars to punish Mr. Bryant for his failed effort to steal a set of hedge clippers." Arguing that the sentence constituted a cruel and excessively harsh punishment, the chief justice added: "This man's life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose."



 

Recommended for you