Fair Wayne Bryant is currently serving a life sentence in Louisiana for an attempted burglary conviction stemming from an attempt to steal some hedge clippers. According to six of the seven justices on the Louisiana Supreme Court, Bryant’s sentence is a fair one.
The court last week denied a request from Bryant to review his life sentence, which he argued was an example of cruel and excessive punishment. Although the one dissenting judge — and the only Black judge on the court — issued a scathing dissent characterizing the sentence as a modern manifestation of old racist laws, the court’s choice leaves the 61-year-old Bryant with few options for leaving the country’s largest maximum security prison at Angola.
Bryant, who is Black, was stopped by police in Shreveport, La., more than 20 years ago because they said his vehicle looked like one used in a recent burglary. They found an allegedly stolen pair of hedge clippers in the back seat and arrested him for the theft. Bryant claimed that the clippers belonged to his wife, but he did say that he had recently entered a carport to look for gas after his car broke down on an unfamiliar road.
Bryant had four previous felony convictions on his record — an armed robbery and three nonviolent small-time thefts. Five years after his arrest in Shreveport, he was convicted of attempted simple burglary and sentenced to life under the state’s habitual offender laws.
In her dissent, Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson argued that the life sentence “is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” She drew a connection between the state’s serial offender law and the “Pig Laws” that followed Reconstruction in the South. (Nearly 80% of people currently incarcerated in Louisiana under these habitual offender laws are Black.)
“Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans,” Johnson wrote. “They targeted actions such as stealing cattle and swine — considered stereotypical ‘negro’ behavior — by lowering the threshold for what constituted a crime and increasing the severity of its punishment.”
She added that, aside from the harm it’s caused Bryant, lengthy sentences are also detrimental to the state as a whole.
“Mr. Bryant’s incarceration has cost Louisiana taxpayers approximately $518,667,” Johnson 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.”
The six judges who refused to review the case — all white men — did not release any written explanation for their decision.
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