Why a Black man from Louisiana is serving a life sentence for stealing hedge clippers

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A Louisiana man will likely spend the rest of his life in prison, according to a decision last week rendered by the state Supreme Court. His crime? Trying to steal hedge clippers from another person’s home in 1997.

In a 5-1 verdict, the court left intact the life sentence given to Fair Wayne Bryant, 62, all but closing off his final chance at reducing it. According to Louisiana law, the crime of attempted simple burglary carries no more than 12 years behind bars, but because the 1997 offense was his fourth felony, Bryant, who is Black, received a life sentence in 2000.

The justices declined to review the sentence, which was upheld by the state appeals court in 2019, according to the decision. One justice recused himself.

The Louisiana Supreme Court decision has sparked an outcry, and experts say the harsh punishment is hardly unique in a state that mandates that sentencing for a fourth felony be no less than 20 years in prison.

“There are hundreds of thousands of individuals who are in American prisons in Louisiana, in Mississippi and Florida and California, around the country, who have similar stories,” Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, told Yahoo News.

Louisiana Supreme Court Building in New Orleans. (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Louisiana Supreme Court Building in New Orleans. (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The court’s ruling is also notable for the sharp dissent from Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, the only Black justice on the court and the first African-American to become its chief justice.

“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.

Bryant, who was 38 at the time of the crime, was accused of stealing the clippers from the carport at a man’s home in Shreveport in January 1997, according to the 2000 appellate decision. A police officer later found Bryant along with a pair of hedge clippers in a van that fit the description of the suspect’s vehicle. The homeowner identified Bryant as the person who was in his carport and said the clippers were his. Bryant said the clippers belonged to his wife.

Bryant was sentenced to life because of four prior convictions, one of which was an attempted armed robbery. All his convictions, Johnson wrote in her dissent, involved a theft of some kind. “Such petty theft is frequently driven by the ravages of poverty or addiction,” she wrote, “and often both.”

In her dissent, which was first reported by the Lens, a nonprofit news organization in New Orleans, Johnson said habitual offender laws are the modern manifestation of “Pig Laws,” which she defined as measures passed in some Southern states after Reconstruction that sought to re-enslave Black Americans by introducing extreme sentences for petty theft.

“Pig Laws undoubtedly contributed to the expansion of the Black prison population that began in the 1870’s,” Johnson wrote.

In the PBS project “Slavery by Another Name,” historian Khalil Muhammad says Pig Laws “focused on enhancing penalties for what had once been a misdemeanor — [it] now becomes a felony.”

The exterior of the Supreme Court of Louisiana in New Orleans. (Paul Richards/AFP via Getty Images)
The exterior of the Supreme Court of Louisiana in New Orleans. (Paul Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

“It explains the level of punitiveness around robbery and burglary offenses and other property offenses in the United States,” Porter told Yahoo News.

Porter pointed to the case of Travion Blount, a Virginia man who was sentenced to six life terms for helping rob a house party in 2006 when he was 18, the Virginian-Pilot reported. Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe pardoned Blount in 2018, reducing his sentence to 14 years.

“A criminal code that can sentence somebody to life for a robbery, for a property crime, values poverty more than it values human life,” Porter said. “And it is certainly rooted in the American imagination of who commits those crimes and the lack of value that the American imagination placed on those individual lives when those criminal codes were first adopted. And because white elites imagined Black residents as a potential offender in those times, it explains why those are viewed as rational sentences.”

Because the Louisiana Supreme Court isn’t required to review every case that goes through the appellate process, it’s unclear where Bryant goes from here. Chris Aberle, the director of the Louisiana Appellate Project, which represented Bryant, told Yahoo News they can go as far as the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The court can be asked for a rehearing, but that’s only if the court actually reviewed the case, according to Aberle. The denial is final.

Cases like Bryant’s aren’t common, he said, but they also aren’t rare.

“There’s no shortage of life sentences imposed for fourth-time offenders, regardless of the seriousness of the fourth offense,” Aberle said.

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