A Black man from Louisiana will continue to spend the rest of his life in prison for stealing a pair of hedge clippers, after his request to have his sentence overturned was denied by the Louisiana Supreme Court last week.
62-year-old Fair Wayne Bryant was convicted on one count of attempted simple burglary in 1997. Prosecutors pursued and won a life sentence in the case, a penalty permissible under the state’s habitual offender law.
Before his arrest in 1997, Bryant had been convicted in 1979 for attempted armed robbery, in 1987 for possession of stolen things, attempted forgery of a check worth $150 in 1989 and for simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling in 1992.
In his appeal, his attorney, Peggy Sullivan, wrote that Bryant “contends that his life sentence is unconstitutionally harsh and excessive.”
The state Supreme Court disagreed — with five justices choosing to uphold the life sentence.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson was the sole dissenter in the court’s decision last week, writing that Bryant’s sentence is “excessive and disproportionate to the offense” — and that it was costing the state a lot of money to keep him imprisoned.
Johnson is the only female and Black person on the court. The rest of the justices are White men.
“Since his conviction in 1997, Mr. Bryant’s incarceration has cost Louisiana taxpayers approximately $518,667,” she wrote. “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.”
“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 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.”
“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,” Johnson wrote.
In her dissent, Johnson connected Bryant’s sentence to the “Pig Laws” and Black Codes in the years after Reconstruction, which enacted harsh penalties for theft and other petty crimes.
“Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans,” she wrote. Bryant’s case, the chief justice said, demonstrates a “modern manifestation” of Pig Laws: “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.”