The white justices on the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to review the case of a Black man serving a life sentence for stealing a pair of hedge trimmers.
Fair Wayne Bryant was charged with attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling after he allegedly stole a pair of hedge clippers from the carport of a residence in Shreveport, reported nonprofit news site The Lens. Bryant admitted he entered the area but claimed he was looking for gas to put in his car after it broke down. When the trimmers were recovered from his vehicle, Bryant claimed they belonged to his wife.
The prosecution sought a harsh punishment under the state’s habitual offender laws. Bryant had four prior felonies and only one of them was violent. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without the chance of parole. In a 2000 appeal, Bryant argued his sentence was too severe. However, a trio of judges from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal disagreed because he “has spent very little of his adult life outside of the criminal justice system.”
The judges added Bryant’s “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.”
His case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court on a direct appeal of his conviction in 2001 and the court declined to hear it. Justice Bernette Johnson — who is now the chief justice — was the sole dissenter back then. A similar scenario occurred this week when the court rejected Bryant’s request to overturn his life sentence, and once again Johnson was the only opposing justice. Johnson is the first Black chief justice on the court and is now the only Black member.
In her dissent, Johnson compared the habitual offender laws to Jim Crow-era Pig Laws. Pig Laws turned minor offenses often associated with Black people into felonies, which resulted in heftier fines and jail time.
“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.”
Johnson argued Bryant’s sentence is “grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” She highlighted the cost associated with housing Bryant.
“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 other five justices currently on the bench are all white men, and none of them provided a reason for rejecting Bryant’s request.