Back in 1997, 42-year-old Fair Wayne Bryant was convicted of stealing a pai of hedge clippers and was sentenced to … life in prison. For stealing garden equipment. Of note, of course, is that Bryant is a Black man, and this is Louisiana. Last week the Louisiana state Supreme Court denied a request to review Bryant’s case and he will continue to serve out his sentence … for stealing clippers.
In 2000, Fair Wayne Bryant had appealed his life sentence to be unconstitutionally excessive and over the past twenty years his case made its way through the Louisiana court system, finally landing at the state’s highest court. Bryant’s hopes for an appeal ended after a Louisiana Supreme Court panel—consisting of five White men and one Black woman—upheld his life sentence 5-1 last week.
The lone sane person on the panel was the Black judge, Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson, who called the original sentence "excessive and disproportionate to the offense" and made special mention of the cost to Louisiana taxpayers:
"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 state taxpayers have already paid $518,667 to keep Bryant in prison for the petty crime. Bryant had four previous four convictions—the first was for attempted armed robbery of a taxi driver in 1979, while the others were for theft, attempted forgery, and burglary—which the panel used as an excuse to keep him in prison for life.
Justice Johnson, in her dissent:
"Each of these crimes was an effort to steal something. 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."
After Bryant’s first appeal in 2000, Louisiana’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal, stated that a life sentence was an appropriate punishment for Bryant because he had already spent enough time in prison as an adult.
He had been to prison before, so why not sentence him to life … for stealing garden equipment.
Judge Johnson called Bryant’s life sentence a "modern manifestation of pig laws," which were formulated to particularly punish African-Americans for petty theft:
"Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans, and this case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a Black man convicted of property crimes. 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."
Imagine a white man, even one with a basically non-violent criminal record, being sentenced to life for petty theft.
Can’t, because that doesn’t happen to white people.