Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson (Louisiana Supreme Court)

The Louisiana Supreme Court last week denied a request to review a life sentence handed down to Fair Wayne Bryant, a man sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a carport storage room in Caddo Parish in 1997. The denial follows a lower state appeals court’s 2019 decision that upheld the sentence. 

In a lone dissent, Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote that Bryant’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.”

She also called the habitual offender laws that were used to convict Bryant the “modern manifestation” of “Pig Laws” —  which were implemented following Reconstruction and introduced extreme punishments for property crime associated with poverty, according to Johnson.

“Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans,” Johnson, the court’s first Black chief justice and only Black justice currently sitting on the court, wrote. “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.”

Johnson also pointed out the cost associated with the continued incarceration of Bryant — who is currently being held in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which was built on the site of a former slave plantation — which already totals more than a half-million dollars. 

“Mr. Bryant’s incarceration has cost Louisiana taxpayers approximately $518,667,” Johnson wrote.  “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 justices that declined to consider Bryant’s request for review — all white men — did not issue written rulings explaining their reasoning. 

Louisiana’s habitual offender laws, which allow prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for crimes that normally wouldn’t warrant them if a person has previous convictions, have long been criticized for sanctioning excessively punitive sentences and driving mass incarceration in the state. Nearly 80 percent of people incarcerated in Louisiana prisons under the habitual offender laws are Black. 

It is not the first time in recent months that Johnson has encouraged historical perspective when considering the outcomes of Louisiana’s criminal legal system.

In early June, responding to the protests following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, she wrote a letter to the judges throughout the state, urging them to “spend some time reflecting on the ways in which we ask others to accept injustices that we would not.”

“As judges, lawyers, legislators, and law enforcement officials, we have real power to change the African American community’s lived experience of the legal system,” she wrote. “But we can only accomplish it by honestly and objectively examining our past in order to understand our present, and then critically examining our present in order to create a better future. Those examinations will reveal an ugly truth: Louisiana was built on principles of racism which have been written into our laws for centuries – often through ‘race neutral’ language.” 

Johnson pointed specifically to the funding of the system through fines and fees, which are disproportionately paid by Black defendants, and to the state’s Jim Crow era non-unanimous jury laws, which disproportionately led to Black defendants being convicted, until the law was voted down in 2018.

“We need only look at the glaring disparities between the rate of arrests, severity of prosecutions and lengths of sentences for drug offenses in poor and African American communities in comparison to those in wealthier White communities, to see how we are part of the problem,” she wrote.

‘Shock the sense of justice’

In 1997, Fair Wayne Bryant was accused of going into the storeroom of a carport in Shreveport. When the homeowner confronted Bryant, he allegedly fled, and was eventually stopped by police in a van that had been identified by the homeowner as likely belonging to Bryant. In the van, police found a pair of hedge clippers. The homeowner said they belonged to him.

Bryant claimed that his car had broken down, and admitted that he went into the storeroom in search of a can of gas. But he said that the clippers the police found belonged to his wife.

He was charged with attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling, and convicted by a jury that same year. Following his conviction, Bryant was initially sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole — which prosecutors argued was a legal sentence at the time under the habitual offender statute, due to his four prior felony convictions.

Only one of those previous convictions was for a violent crime — a 1979 attempted armed robbery of a cab driver, to which Bryant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. *

The other three were non-violent. 

In 1987, Bryant pleaded guilty to possession of stolen things over $500 after allegedly stealing “three televisions, a remote control and a robot” from a Radio Shack. Initially, Bryant had been charged with possession of stolen things greater than $100 and less than $500. But when prosecutors went back and checked the prices of the items at the time Bryant was alleged to have committed the theft — which was around Christmas — they determined that the value had been in fact over $500. Bryant was sentenced to two years in prison.

In 1989, Bryant was accused of forging a $150 check. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Then, in 1991, Bryant was accused of breaking into someone’s home and stealing personal property. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Following his 1997 conviction, Bryant challenged his life without parole sentence as unconstitutionally excessive.

Case law established by the Louisiana Supreme Court has held  that a sentence is unconstitutionally excessive — even if it is technically allowed under the habitual offender statute — if it “makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment and is nothing more than the purposeless imposition of pain and suffering and is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.”  And in order for a sentence to be disproportionate enough to violate the constitution, the court has held, it must “shock the sense of justice.”

But judges who looked at Bryant’s case on direct appeal following his 1997 conviction and life without parole sentence apparently did not find it unconstitutionally excessive.

In 2000, a panel of three judges on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal determined that because Bryant had already been incarcerated for much of his adult life up to that point, sending him to prison for the remainder of his life, until his eventual death, was not an inappropriate punishment for stealing a garden tool.

“Defendant has spent very little of his adult life outside of the criminal justice system,” the judges noted, and then went on to conclude that Bryant’s “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.”

Bryant’s conviction and sentence were upheld. The Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear his direct appeal in 2001— although Bernette Johnson also dissented in that decision, saying she would have reviewed the case to determine whether or not the storage shed that Bryant allegedly stole the clippers from constituted an “inhabited dwelling.”

The appeal that was denied by the Louisiana Supreme Court on Friday appears to have stemmed from a 2018 motion by Bryant to correct an illegal sentence, and a subsequent dispute over whether or not he should have been appointed a lawyer during a resentencing hearing. 

In 2018, an appellate court agreed that the fact that Bryant was denied the possibility of parole for the entirety of his sentence was in fact illegal, but the life sentence was not. The trial court then resentenced him to life with the possibility of parole. 

Following his resentence, Bryant appealed again, arguing that he should have been provided an attorney during his resentencing, and that the life sentence that was upheld was still “unconstitutionally harsh and excessive.” 

The state appeals court denied those claims in 2019.

It is unclear what legal recourse Bryant will have now that the Supreme Court has declined to review his appeal. A lawyer with the Louisiana Appellate Project, who worked on Bryant’s motion to fix what he contended was an illegal sentence, did not immediately respond to calls.

Retired New Orleans Judge Calvin Johnson — no relation to Chief Justice Bernette Johnson — who is a long-time criminal justice reform advocate and is currently working with The People’s DA Coalition to advocate for less punitive prosecutorial practices in New Orleans in advance of the upcoming election for district attorney, called Bryant’s case “the same old thing,” and an example of how the state continues to justify punishment “that never ends.”

“Forget law — again, we can talk about the law, and how Justice Johnson talks about the racial history of it,” Johnson said. “We can talk about all of that, and in terms of how we came to where we are in America and in Louisiana. We can talk about all of that.”

“But forget it for a second,” he said. “Just the inhumanity. Just the inhumanity of it. It just takes your breath away.”

*Correction: As originally published, this article misreported one of Bryant’s convictions. He was convicted of attempted armed robbery, not armed robbery. (Aug. 4, 2020)

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...