The Supreme Court confirms the life sentence of a black man convicted of attempting to steal hedge trimmers
A Louisiana man who was sentenced to life in prison more than two decades ago for stealing a pair of hedge trimmers will remain behind bars indefinitely after the state’s Supreme Court dismissed a request to review his case.
Fair Wayne Bryant, 62, was convicted of stealing garden tools in 1997 and was ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison. At that time, the “cruel” punishment was punished according to state law.
Bryant appealed the life sentence as unconstitutional in 2000, and his case eventually made its way to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The panel, consisting of five white men and one black woman, confirmed the statement 5-1 last week.
The only dissenter was the Supreme Court judge, Bernette Johnson, who called Bryant’s statement “excessive and disproportionate to the offense” and also noted that the high costs of putting him in jail were in prison.
“Arrested at the age of 38, Bryant has spent almost 23 years in prison and is now over 60 years old,” she wrote. “If he lived another twenty years, Louisiana taxpayers would have paid nearly a million dollars to punish Mr. Bryant for his failed attempt to steal a pair of hedge trimmers.”
Fair Wayne Bryant, 62, was convicted of stealing garden tools in 1997 and was ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison. The ‘cruel’ punishment was sanctioned under the usual state law at the time of the photo in Louisiana, Supreme Court)
According to Johnson, taxpayers in the state have already paid $ 518,667 to keep Bryant behind bars for petty crime.
Bryant, who is black, had four convictions prior to the 1997 incident that would secure his indefinite term in prison.
Only the first of the four offenses was violent: an attempted armed robbery of a taxi driver in 1979, for which he was sentenced to ten years of hard labor. His later convictions included possession of stolen property in 1987, attempted counterfeiting of a $ 150 check in 1989, and housebreaking in 1992.
“Each of these crimes was an attempt to steal something. Such petty theft is often caused by the destructions of poverty or addiction, and often both, ”Johnson wrote in her blistering disagreement. “It is cruel and unusual to be sentenced to life in prison for forced labor for the criminal behavior usually caused by poverty or addiction.”
In 2000, Louisiana’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal said that life sentence was an appropriate sentence because Bryant had been in prison as an adult for so long.
The “litany of convictions and the brevity of the periods when the suspect has not been detained for a new crime,” the court wrote, “is broad support for the sentence imposed in this case.”
After two consecutive appeals, Bryant was given the possibility of parole. He claimed that he had received an illegal sentence and that he should have been appointed as a lawyer at a hearing.
The only dissenter was the Supreme Court judge, Bernette Johnson, who called Bryant’s statement “excessive and disproportionate to the offense,” and also noted that the high cost of keeping him locked up
His motions were rejected by the higher courts, and last week the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed – except for Johnson.
Johnson is the second female African American judge on the court and the first African American chief justice. None of her white male counterparts offered written statements to justify their decisions.
The court’s decision was first reported by The lens, a non-profit news site in New Orleans.
In their report, the Lens said, “Louisiana’s usual perpetrator laws … have long been criticized for punishing inordinate punishment and causing mass incarceration in the state. Nearly 80 percent of those incarcerated in Louisiana prisons under customary offender laws … are black. ‘
In her disagreement, Johnson called Bryant’s phrase a “modern manifestation” of “pig laws,” which were created after rebuilding to severely punish African Americans for petty theft.
“Pig laws were largely intended to enslave African Americans,” Johnson wrote. And this case shows their modern manifestation: harsh, usual offense laws that allow life imprisonment for a black man convicted of property crimes.
“This man’s life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of three hedge trimmers is roughly disproportionate to crime and serves no legitimate criminal purpose.”