When Justice is Abused

Five White Lousiana judges upheld life sentence of Black man jailed for stealing hedge clippers 23 years ago

The only person to dissent was the lone Black judge on the panel, Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson

By Namrata Tripathi
Updated On : 06:46 PST, Aug 7, 2020

Louisiana Supreme Court

A man from Louisiana, who was sentenced to life in prison for stealing a pair of hedge clippers over 20 years ago, will continue to remain in prison after the state Supreme Court denied a request to review his case. Fair Wayne Bryant, a 62-year-old Black man, was convicted for stealing garden equipment in 1997, which landed him in prison for the rest of his life.

Bryant, in 2000, had appealed his life sentence to be unconstitutionally excessive and his case had made its way up to the high court of the state. However, his hopes were dashed after a Louisiana Supreme Court panel, consisting of five White men and one Black woman, upheld his life sentence 5-1 last week. The only person to dissent was the Black judge on the panel, Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson.

Justice Johnson deemed the sentence “excessive and disproportionate to the offense”, and noted the hefty cost Louisiana taxpayers will have to shell to continue punishing Bryant for a minor offense. “Arrested at 38, Mr Bryant has already spent nearly 23 years in prison and is now over 60 years old,” she wrote. “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, according to Johnson, have already paid $518,667 to keep Bryant in prison for the petty crime. The 62-year-old, prior to 1997, had four convictions which resulted in his indefinite incarceration. However, only the first of the four offenses was for a violent charge of attempted armed robbery of a taxi driver in 1979. Bryant was sentenced to a decade of hard labor for the crime. His subsequent convictions were theft, attempted forgery, and burglary of a house.

Supreme Court Justice Bernette Johnson (Louisiana Supreme Court)

Justice Johnson, in her dissent, added: “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.”

Louisiana’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal, in 2000, had reportedly said that a life sentence was an appropriate punishment for Bryant because he had already spent enough time in prison as an adult. The court wrote: The “litany of convictions and the brevity of the periods during which the defendant was not in custody for a new offense is ample support for the sentence imposed in this case.”

Bryant, after two appeals, was given the possibility of parole after he argued that he had received an illegal sentence and should have been given a lawyer during his re-sentencing hearing. Higher courts, however, denied his motions and the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed with it, except for Johnson, who is the first African-American chief justice of the state. Reports state that none of Johnson’s White male counterparts offered written rulings to justify their decisions. 

Johnson, in her dissent, also 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,” Johnson wrote. “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.”

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