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The Louisiana Supreme Court last week declined to overturn a life sentence for Fair Wayne Bryant, a black man who was convicted of attempted burglary in 1997. (Photo: Ken Lund/Flickr/cc)

'Enraging and Inexcusable': Louisiana Supreme Court Rules Black Man Convicted of Garden Tool Theft 20 Years Ago Should Die in Prison

"A system that condemns a man to life in prison for stealing a pair of hedge clippers is not justice," said the ACLU.

Julia Conley

A 62-year-old Black man is expected to spend the rest of his life in Louisiana's largest maximum-security prison after the state Supreme Court denied his request to overturn his life sentence 23 years after he was convicted for attempting to steal a pair of hedge clippers.

Five of the court's six justices ruled last week that Fair Wayne Bryant's life sentence for an attempted burglary in 1997 was fair and should be carried out, leaving Bryant with little recourse. 

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, the court's only female and only Black judge, dissented against the ruling of her five colleagues, all of whom are white men. 

"This man's life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of three hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose," Johnson wrote (pdf).

The ACLU of Louisiana condemned "the sheer cruely and unfairness" of the sentence, calling the court's ruling "enraging and inexcusable."

"A system that condemns a man to life in prison for stealing a pair of hedge clippers is not justice," said Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana in a statement on Thursday. "It is part and parcel of a system designed to perpetuate racial injustice and white supremacy."

Bryant was stopped by police while driving in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1997 after the officers matched his car to the description of one used in a recent home burglary. He told the police the hedge clippers in his car were his wife's, and acknowledged that he had entered a carport on a private property in search of a tank of gas after his vehicle had broken down. The admission was used against Bryant to secure the conviction and life sentence.

Bryant had also been convicted of previous robberies and an attempted forgery years before 1997, allowing prosecutors to pursue a life sentence based on the state's "habitual offender" law.

The habitual offender provision and Bryant's sentence, Johnson wrote in her dissent, are modern-day manifestations of Reconstruction-era "pig laws." The laws targeted recently-emancipated Black people for crimes involving petty theft, often linked to the persistent poverty in which formerly-enslaved people lived. 

Under the laws, accused criminals were sentenced to forced labor.

"Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans," Johnson wrote.

The ACLU of Louisiana demanded that state legislators repeal the habitual offender law.

"Legislators have a clear choice to make when they return to session: defend these extreme and unjust sentences, or stand with Fair Wayne Bryant and repeal this unjust law once and for all," said Hebert.

Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the family of George Floyd, whose killing by four Minneapolis police officers in May sparked a nationwide uprising against policing and racial injustice, tweeted that the ruling illustrated the "two justice systems in America."

While Bryant will live out the rest of his life in prison, the three Louisville police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in March have yet to face criminal charges, while Iran-Contra convict Elliott Abrams on Thursday was named State Department Iran envoy. 

The contrast between sentences for Black Americans like Bryant and the justice system's treatment of powerful white people "is why we need change," tweeted Crump.

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