A Louisiana man who was sentenced to life in prison for stealing a pair of hedge clippers more than two decades ago is set to remain behind bars indefinitely after the state’s Supreme Court denied a request to review his case.
Fair Wayne Bryant, 62, was convicted in 1997 for stealing the garden utensils and ordered to spend the remainder of his life in prison. The ‘cruel’ sentence was sanctioned under the state’s habitual offender law at the time.
Bryant appealed the life sentence as unconstitutionally excessive in 2000, with his case eventually making its way up to Louisiana’s high court. The panel, consisting of five white men and one black woman, upheld the ruling 5-1 last week.
The lone dissenter was Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson, who called Bryant’s sentence ‘excessive and disproportionate to the offense’, and also noted the hefty cost of keeping him incarcerated.
‘Arrested at 38, Mr. Bryant has already spent nearly 23 years in prison and is now over 60 years old,’ she wrote. ‘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.’
According to Johnson, tax payers in the state have already paid $518,667 to keep Bryant behind bars for the petty crime.
Bryant, who is black, had four convictions prior to the 1997 incident that would secure his indefinite incarceration.
Only the first of the four offenses were for a violent charge: an attempted armed robbery of a taxi driver in 1979, for which he was sentenced to a decade of hard labor. His subsequent convictions 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,’ Johnson wrote in her searing dissent. ‘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.’
In 2000, Louisiana’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal said a life sentence was an appropriate punishment because Bryant had already spent so long in prison as an adult.
The ‘litany of convictions and the brevity of the periods during which defendant was not in custody for a new offense,’ the court wrote, ‘is ample support for the sentence imposed in this case.’
Following two subsequent appeals, Bryant was given the possibility of parole. He argued he had received an illegal sentence and should have been appointed a lawyer during a re-sentencing hearing.
His motions were denied by higher courts, and last week the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed – except for Johnson.
Johnson is the court’s second female African American justice and its first African American chief justice. None of her white male counterparts offered written rulings to justify their decisions.
The court’s decision was first reported by The Lens, a nonprofit news site in New Orleans.
In their report, the Lens said ‘Louisiana’s habitual offender laws … have long been criticized for sanctioning excessively punitive sentences and driving mass incarceration in the state. Nearly 80 percent of people incarcerated in Louisiana prisons under the habitual offender laws … are black.’
In her dissent, Johnson called Bryant’s sentence a ‘modern manifestation’ of ‘pig laws,’ which were created following Reconstruction to severely penalize African-Americans for petty theft.
‘Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans,’ Johnson wrote. ‘And this case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a black man convicted of property crimes.
‘This man’s life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of 3 hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.’