ST. FRANCISVILLE, La. — Fair Wayne Bryant walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola a free man Thursday after serving more than 23 years of a life sentence for trying, and failing, to steal a pair of hedge clippers.
Bryant’s freedom, which the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union called a “long-overdue victory,” comes two months after the Louisiana Supreme Court denied, without explanation, Bryant’s bid to have his sentence reconsidered.
Bryant, 63, admitted to the three-member Louisiana Board of Pardons and Paroles that his history of alcohol and cocaine abuse played a significant role in his crime, as well as a string of arrests prior to that night. Before being sent to prison the last time, he’d been arrested 22 times and had a total of 11 convictions.
“I had a drug problem,” Bryant said, according to The Associated Press. “But I’ve had 24 years to recognize that problem and to be in constant communication with the Lord to help me with that problem.”
The board, which voted unanimously to grant Bryant’s parole, ordered him to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, perform community service and abide by a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. The AP reported that Bryant will be the first person to enter a program by the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit organization that helps new parolees adjust to life outside of prison.
“He has a support system that he’s never had,” Andrew Hundley, executive director of the Parole Project, told the board.
A statement on the organization’s Facebook page said Bryant’s story is a reminder that extreme prison sentences are of no benefit to society.
“We are committed to helping him rebuild his life,” the statement said of Bryant.
Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who has devoted her life to the abolishment of the death penalty, praised the parole board’s decision. Prejean had spoken out on Bryant’s behalf after the Supreme Court refused his case.
Bryant, who was convicted of simple burglary, was sentenced under Louisiana’s habitual offender statute, which gives a person longer and longer sentences for each felony he or she commits. According to the ACLU, the law was part of a “tough on crime” approach to sentencing in the U.S. over the past several decades.
Like many inmates before and since his conviction, Bryant ended up with a life sentence for a relatively minor crime.
“The majority (64 percent) of people serving time in Louisiana prisons under the habitual offender statute are there for nonviolent crimes,” the ACLU of Louisiana said. “Black people represent the large majority of those convicted as habitual offenders (79 percent).”
After decades of appeals, Bryant’s attorneys submitted a writ of certiorari asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to grant him relief. Five of the court’s justices on July 31 declined to consider his case.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, the court’s only Black justice, wrote a scathing dissent in which she 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.
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.
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 felony 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.
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.
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