Louisiana high court refuses to review case of Black man serving life for stealing hedge clippers

NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana Supreme Court last month refused to review the life sentence of a Black man convicted more than two decades ago of trying, and failing, to steal a pair of hedge clippers from someone’s carport.

Fair Wayne Bryant, 62, is serving a life sentence in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. In a July 31 decision, five of the court’s justices denied, without explanation, Bryant’s writ of certiorari asking for his sentence to be reconsidered. One, Associate Justice Scott Crichton, recused himself.

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, the court’s only Black justice, dissented, saying she would have granted the writ.

In her dissent, Johnson described Bryant’s life sentence as excessive and disproportionate to the crime for which he was convicted.

“Mr. Bryant was sentenced, as a habitual offender, to life in prison for unsuccessfully attempting to make off with somebody else’s hedge clippers,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson is not the only person who has described Bryant’s sentence as harsh. A Change.org petition urging action by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and the high court had, as of Wednesday afternoon, surpassed its goal of 5,000 signatures.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who has devoted her life to the abolishment of the death penalty, has also called on people to sign the petition, write letters to their local newspaper editors, write personal letters of support to Bryant or “whatever other actions your creative spirit devises.”

Prejean invoked the name of George Floyd, the Black man killed May 25 by a white police officer in Minneapolis, as a rallying cry for Bryant.

“In this new moment of awakened national consciousness about systemic racism, I urge you, my fellow citizens, not to be silent, but to join me in raising our voices to decry this outrageously racist decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court,” Prejean wrote on her website, Ministry Against the Death Penalty. “I especially urge my fellow white Americans to join people of color in their long-suffering, righteous struggle for justice.”

The ACLU of Louisiana has also condemned the court’s refusal, pointing to statistics that show that 64% of those serving time under Louisiana’s habitual offender law are doing so for nonviolent crimes.

Black people make up 79% of those convicted as habitual offenders, the organization said.

“A system that condemns a man to life in prison for stealing a pair of hedge clippers is not justice,” Alanah Odoms Hebert, ACLU of Louisiana’s executive director, said in a statement. “The sheer cruelty and unfairness of Mr. Bryant’s sentence is enraging and inexcusable, but it is no anomaly; it is part and parcel of a system designed to perpetuate racial injustice and white supremacy.

A stalled van and some hedge clippers

Bryant’s most recent journey through the criminal justice system began around 3:30 a.m. Jan. 5, 1997, when his car broke down in a residential area of Shreveport, according to court records and a report in The Lens, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on public policy affecting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Bryant told authorities he had gone into the storeroom of a home’s carport in search of a gas can. When confronted by the homeowner, he fled.

The homeowner, who initially told police the intruder was a young white man, checked out his storeroom and found several tools piled up on the floor, records show.

Bryant, who is Black, was later stopped in a blue Ford Aerostar van that the homeowner told police matched the one he saw parked outside his house. When officers found a pair of hedge clippers in the van, the homeowner identified them as belonging to him.

Bryant, however, said the clippers belonged to his wife, The Lens reported. Court records indicate that at trial, Bryant’s cousin and owner of the van testified that the hedge clippers belonged to him.

Despite the racial discrepancy in his description of the burglar, the homeowner identified Bryant as the intruder by a large bleached-out spot on Bryant’s jeans, the records show.

Bryant was convicted that July of attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling.

As Johnson explained in her dissent, Bryant had four prior convictions in Louisiana before his 1997 arrest and conviction. One of those convictions, for the attempted armed robbery of a cab driver in March 1979, ended with a sentence of 10 years in prison.

None of his other convictions were for violent crimes. He was convicted of possession of stolen goods in 1987, which The Lens reported involved a Christmas-time theft of three television sets, a remote control and a robot from Radio Shack.

Bryant was sentenced to two years in prison in that case.

He was convicted of attempted forgery of a check worth $150 in 1991 and sentenced to 18 months in prison, according to court records. Following another simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling conviction in 1992, he was sentenced to four years in prison.

Read Justice Bernette Johnson’s dissent opinion below.

“Each of these crimes was an effort to steal something,” Johnson wrote in her dissent. “Such petty theft is frequently driven by the ravages of poverty or addiction, and often both.

“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.”

Johnson argued that even a permissible sentence under Louisiana’s habitual offender sentencing scheme can violate a person’s constitutional rights against excessive punishment. Citing prior case law, she wrote that a sentence is unconstitutionally excessive if it “makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment or amounts to nothing more than the purposeful imposition of pain and suffering and is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.”

The state Supreme Court has previously held that a sentence, in order to violate the constitution, must “shock the sense of justice,” The Lens reported.

Lengthy appeals

Louisiana’s Second Circuit Court of Appeal reviewed Bryant’s case on direct appeal and did not find his sentence to be excessive, affirming his punishment in 2000, according to court records.

In affirming his sentence, the panel of judges pointed to the number of arrests in Bryant’s background, as well as the short periods of time between prison stints, as indications that he should remain in prison for the rest of his life.

“Defendant has spent very little of his adult life outside of the criminal justice system,” the ruling stated, going over in detail each of the convictions in his past. “This litany of convictions and the brevity of the periods during which defendant was not in custody for a new offense is ample support for the sentence imposed in this case.”

The Louisiana Supreme Court in 2001 declined to hear Bryant’s direct appeal – another decision in which Johnson dissented, according to The Lens. Her issue in that decision stemmed from whether or not the storeroom from which the hedge clippers were stolen constituted an “inhabited dwelling.”

In February 2018, Bryant filed a motion to correct what he claimed was an illegal sentence. The trial court denied the motion, but the appeals court granted his writ, in part.

Though the sentence itself was not found to be illegal, the appeals court found that his parole ineligibility was, because the applicable state law prohibited parole only on the first year of his sentence. It was remanded to the trial court for resentencing.

The trial court resentenced him to life with the possibility of parole.

Following his resentencing, however, Bryant again appealed, arguing that he should have been provided with an attorney during the resentencing and that the life sentence remained excessive. The appeals court denied that appeal last year.

The Lens reported that the Supreme Court’s July 31 denial appears to stem from his latest appeal of his sentence.

Johnson compared Louisiana’s habitual offender law to “Pig Laws,” or laws established in the years following Reconstruction in which southern states used extreme punishments against emancipated African Americans for petty theft associated with poverty.

“These measures enabled Southern states to continue using forced labor (as punishment for a crime) by African Americans even after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment,” Johnson wrote. “Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans. 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 credited Pig Laws with contributing to the explosion of the Black prison population that began in the 1870s and called Bryant’s case a “modern manifestation” of those 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,” Johnson wrote.

The chief justice also pointed out the amount of money Louisiana taxpayers are shelling out to keep Bryant in prison for a simple burglary charge. At an average of $62.49 per inmate per day, Bryant’s incarceration has already cost the state more than $518,000, she wrote.

“Arrested at 38, Mr. Bryant has already spent nearly 23 years in prison and is now over 60 years old,” Johnson 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.”

Famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the family of George Floyd, also decried the court ruling.

“There are TWO justice systems in America,” Crump tweeted last week.