The Louisiana Supreme Court last week refused to review the life sentence imposed on Fair Wayne Bryant for “unsuccessfully attempting to make off with somebody else’s hedge clippers.”
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson—the court’s first Black chief justice and the only Black justice on the court—identified Louisiana’s harsh habitual offender laws as a legacy of the state’s long history of abusive and racially biased punishment in her dissent from the court’s denial of review.
“In the years following Reconstruction, southern states criminalized recently emancipated African American citizens by introducing extreme sentences for petty theft associated with poverty,” she wrote. “These measures enabled southern states to continue using forced-labor (as punishment for a crime) by African Americans even after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.”
In Louisiana, these “Pig Laws”—so named because they targeted stereotypical “negro” crimes like stealing cattle and swine—“undoubtedly contributed to the expansion of the Black prison population that began in the 1870’s” by “lowering the threshold for what constituted a crime and increasing the severity of its punishment,” Chief Justice Johnson wrote.
Those laws remained on the books in most Southern states for decades, the chief justice wrote. “And [Mr. Bryant’s] case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a Black man convicted of property crimes.”
Mr. Bryant was charged with attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling after his car broke down on an unfamiliar Shreveport road in 1997 and he went into a carport looking for a gas can. Police later found a pair of hedge clippers in his van, which he said belonged to his wife.
But the carport owner said the clippers belonged to him. Mr. Bryant was convicted and initially sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under Louisiana’s habitual offender statute because he had four prior convictions.
As Chief Justice Johnson explained, his first conviction—the only violent one—was attempted armed robbery in 1979, for which he was sentenced to 10 years at hard labor. He was subsequently convicted of possession of stolen things in 1987; attempted forgery of a check worth $150 in 1989; and simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling in 1992.
“Each of these crimes was an effort to steal something,” the chief justice wrote. “Such petty theft is frequently driven by the ravages of poverty or addiction, and often both. 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.”
After years of court challenges, an appellate court in 2018 upheld Mr. Bryant’s life sentence but ruled that he should be eligible for parole. Mr. Bryant’s life-without-parole sentence was changed to life with the possibility of parole.
Mr. Bryant appealed, arguing that he should have been provided an attorney during his resentencing proceeding and that life in prison, even with eligibility for parole, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The state appeals court denied his appeal in 2019.
Despite Chief Justice Johnson’s determination that “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,” the other state supreme court justices—all white men—refused to review that decision on July 31.
Mr. Bryant has spent nearly 23 years in prison for attempting to take someone’s hedge clippers and is now over 60 years old.
Update: The Louisiana Committee on Parole voted 3-0 on October 15, 2020, to grant parole to Mr. Bryant.