A Louisiana man has been granted parole after serving more than 20 years of a life sentence for stealing hedge clippers in 1997.
Fair Wayne Bryant, 63, was given what his attorneys argued was an “unconstitutionally harsh” punishment because he had numerous other convictions, making him a “habitual” offender under Louisiana law, NBC reported.
“Bryant had several past convictions, including the possession of stolen things, simple burglary and attempted forgery. His only violent conviction, the chief justice noted in her dissent, was for armed robbery in 1979,” the outlet reported.
Yet it was his failed attempt to steal hedge clippers from a home in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1997 that sealed his fate. At the time, Bryant was 38 and lifted the clippers from a homeowner’s carport storeroom, NBC reported. The homeowner chased Bryant off. Bryant was later convicted of “attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling,” the outlet reported, leading to his life sentence.
Bryant has been trying to appeal his conviction ever since. Earlier this year, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to review Bryant’s sentence, but on Thursday, the Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole granted him parole.
The state Supreme Court didn’t explain why it refused to hear Bryant’s case, though NBC hints there was a racial component, as five of the court’s seven justices are white men and Bryant is black. Of the remaining two, one recused himself, while the other, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, wrote a dissent from the decision in which she called Bryant’s sentence “excessive.”
“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.
Johnson likened the habitual offender law with “Pig Laws” of the Reconstruction era.
“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,” Johnson wrote. “Pig Laws undoubtedly contributed to the expansion of the Black prison population that began in the 1870’s. These laws remained on the books of most southern states for decades. And this case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a Black man convicted of property crimes.”
The parole board discussed Bryant’s past crimes and his drug problems. Bryant told the board said he has addressed the drug problem while in prison and was able to “recognize that problem and to be in constant communication with the Lord to help me with that problem.”
Robert Lancaster, Bryant’s attorney, told NBC in a statement that he hoped Bryant’s case could help change habitual offender laws.
“Because of his prior history of petty crimes to fuel a drug addiction, Mr. Bryant was sentenced to a life in prison rather than given the help he needed to recover from his drug addiction,” Lancaster said. “Finally, after 24 years in prison, he has been given a second chance.”
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