The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Fair Wayne Bryant, a man sentenced to life in prison for a 1997 conviction under the habitual offender law for attempting to steal hedge clippers, was granted a new parole hearing on Wednesday. Francis Abbott, executive director of the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole, said the hearing is scheduled for October 15.

Last week The Lens reported that the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to review Bryant’s sentence after he filed an appeal stemming from a 2018 motion to correct an illegal sentence. In a lone dissent, Bernette Johnson, the court’s chief justice, called Bryant’s sentence “grossly out of proportion to the crime” and said that it “serves no legitimate penal purpose.” 

Bryant had previously been convicted of four felonies, only one of which — an attempted armed robbery in 1979 — was a violent crime. Following his conviction in 1997, prosecutors filed a habitual offender bill against him, allowing for an enhanced sentence.

In her dissent, Johnson called the habitual offender laws that made Bryant’s sentence possible the “modern manifestation” of laws implemented following Reconstruction that were “largely designed to re-enslave African Americans.”

Bryant’s parole hearing in October will be his fourth since 2015. The first three times he appeared before the board — in 2015, 2018, and 2019 — he was denied.

Abbott told The Lens that Bryant had been denied parole in the past due to varying combinations of disciplinary infractions in prison, his criminal record, opposition from law enforcement and victims, a moderate risk assessment score, and a poor supervisions history — determined by his parole history for previous convictions.

“He had numerous disciplinary infractions,” Abbot said of Bryant’s first two parole denials. “He had very poor disciplinary conduct.” 

But Abbott said that Bryant has not had a new disciplinary write-up since September 2018, for contraband. Abbott said that he couldn’t discuss any more specifics of Bryant’s disciplinary record, however, because it is contained in a pre-parole report, which is confidential under Louisiana law. 

Bryant was convicted of attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling in 1997 in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, for breaking into a storeroom of a carport and taking hedge clippers. Bryant admitted that he had entered the storeroom, but he said it was because his car had broken down and he was looking for a can of gas. He denied that he had taken the hedge clippers, which he said belonged to his wife.

In addition to his conviction for the attempted armed robbery in 1979, Bryant’s felonies that prosecutors said warranted his life sentence under the habitual offender statute consisted of possession of stolen things, attempted forgery for writing a bad check, and simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling. 

“Each of these crimes was an effort to steal something,” Chief Justice Johnson wrote of Bryant’s previous convictions 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.”

The Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case in 1997, did not immediately return a call from The Lens.

Bryant was initially sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 2000. Following his motion to correct an illegal sentence, however, that sentence was changed to life with the possibility of parole in 2018. 

But Bryant had already been eligible for parole at that point — since at least 2015, when he had his first parole hearing — under Louisiana law, which allows even people sentenced to life without parole to be considered for parole if they fit into certain criteria and if they have not been convicted of a crime of violence or a sex offense. 

Abbott took a slightly different view of Bryant’s conviction record than Johnson.

“I’d like to point out that this offender was habitually billed,” he said. “The underlying charge — that initial charge — is not the only thing that was considered at his sentencing. And he has an extensive arrest and criminal history.”

“First and foremost our board is going to consider public safety,” Abbott said.

He said that the parole board looks at a range of issues when considering someone for parole, and called the investigation prior to the hearing “very comprehensive.”

Abbott also said that it is not uncommon for the parole board to provide guidance to somebody if they are denied parole “so that the offender has somewhat of a roadmap to hopefully a successful hearing.”

“We want to provide a meaningful opportunity for offenders who have adequately prepared for release into society,” he said. 

Bryant’s case has gained significant national media coverage, and the decision by the Louisiana Supreme Court not to review his sentence has been condemned by a number of politicians and civil rights groups. 

In a statement to The Lens, ACLU of Louisiana executive director Alanah Odoms Hebert implored that the parole board grant Bryant’s release in October.

 “Fair Wayne Bryant has spent more than 20 years in prison for an unsuccessful attempt to steal a pair of hedge clippers because of a racist and unjust system that condemns people to die in prison for minor offenses,” she said. “There was no rational justification for such an extreme sentence then, and there can be no justifiable reason to continue his unjust sentence now.”

“The parole board must make the right decision to release Mr. Bryant on parole. Any alternative would be indefensible.” 

Parole hearings can be viewed by the public on the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Parole’s YouTube live stream

Update: This story was updated after publication to include a statement from Alanah Odoms Hebert, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

Nicholas 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...