Louisiana court upholds black man's life sentence for trying to steal hedge clippers

Amanda Holpuch in New York
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

A black man in Louisiana will continue to serve a life sentence in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers after the state supreme court denied a request to review his sentence.

Fair Wayne Bryant was convicted in 1997 of attempted simple burglary.

The five justices who rejected his appeal – all white men – did not explain the reasoning for their decision, which was first reported by the Lens, a non-profit news site in New Orleans.

The supreme court’s lone dissent came from the only black or female member of the court, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote the sentencing was a “modern manifestation” of the extreme punishments meted out to newly emancipated black men in the post-civil war era.

“The sentence imposed is excessive and disproportionate to the offense the defendant committed,” Johnson wrote.

Bryant, 62, received the life sentence under Louisiana’s habitual offender law, which allows a person’s sentence to increase based on their criminal history.

Before Bryant’s 1997 arrest, he was convicted for attempted armed robbery in 1979, his only violent conviction. He was sentenced to 10 years hard labor for the crime. His other previous charges were for possession of stolen things in 1987, attempted check forgery in 1989 and simple burglary in 1992.

Last year, Governor John Bel Edwards signed a reform to the habitual law which criminal justice advocates described as an “incremental” step forward.

In Johnson’s dissent, the justice wrote that all of Bryant’s crimes were for stealing something. “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,” she wrote.

The 23 years Bryant has served in prison since the 1997 has cost Louisiana taxpayers more than $518,000, Johnson noted. “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,” she wrote.

Her dissent then explained that after the era of Reconstruction, which followed the civil war, southern states implemented laws which gave newly emancipated African American citizens extreme punishment for petty crimes. In some places, these were known as “pig laws”, and they were “largely designed to re-enslave African Americans”, Johnson wrote.

Her dissent ended: “And this case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a black man convicted of property crimes.”