A screenshot from Fair Wayne Bryan't videoconference parole hearing on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Bryant is pictured at bottom center.

Fair Wayne Bryant, a man sentenced to life in prison under the state’s habitual offender law for attempting to steal a pair of hedge clippers from a carport storage room was granted parole on Thursday morning in a 3-0 vote by the state Parole Board. 

Bryant — who was convicted of attempted burglary in 1997 in Caddo Parish — is sixty-three years old, and has spent more than 20 years in prison. He is currently being held at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and had been denied parole three times — in 2015, 2018, and 2019 — before it was finally granted on Thursday. 

In July, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to review Bryant’s life sentence. But in a lone dissent, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said that the sentence was the product of a long history of racist laws designed to “re-enslave African Americans.” 

She called the habitual offender statute — which allows prosecutors to seek harsher sentences if a person has prior convictions — the modern manifestation of “pig laws,” which were implemented after Reconstruction and meted out harsh punishments for property crimes associated with poverty, according to Johnson.

In the days following, Bryant’s story gained significant national media coverage, and civil rights organizations such as the ACLU implored for him to be released. The next week, Bryant was granted a new parole hearing

That hearing took place on Thursday. Throughout the proceedings, board members expressed some concerns about Bryant’s past criminal history and drug use. He had previously been convicted of attempted armed robbery in 1979, his only conviction for a violent crime. The other three convictions prior to the incident with the hedge clippers that were used by prosecutors to secure his life sentence were for possession of stolen things, attempted check forgery and burglary. 

“By all accounts you have a horrible criminal record,” said Tony Marabela, one of the members of the committee.  “You have a poor history of supervision and you have a long history of drug abuse and addiction. You have opposition from all branches of law enforcement and the victims in this case who are opposed to getting out.”

But the members were impressed by Bryant’s accomplishments in prison, and reassured by the involvement of the Louisiana Parole Project, which would help Bryant through his transition back into society. Andrew Hundley, executive director of the Parole Project, advocated for Bryant’s release at the hearing.

“Fair’s case has received a lot of national attention over the last few months, and that’s how he came on our radar,”  Hundley said. “A lot of people were surprised that an individual who is 63 years old, would continue to be incarcerated for almost 23 years for a simple burglary.”

Hundley said that the Parole Project would assist with transitional housing, finding him a sponsor, making sure he attends Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and therapy and finding employment. 

“Fair’s case is very important to us, because his continued incarceration — which is no fault of the Parole Board, y’all didn’t give him this sentence — but we think it was an unfair sentence,” Hundley said. “And we want to see him come home.”

Robert Lancaster of the Parole and Re-entry Clinic at LSU — who said he was representing Bryant in collaboration with the Parole Project — also testified on his behalf at the hearing. 

“In the 24 years since he’s been in prison, he demonstrates that he has matured, he has rehabilitated,” Lancaster said, arguing that the time away from society had allowed him to be rehabilitated and that his prison record demonstrated that he would be

The only write-up Bryant has had in the last five years was for cigarettes, a warden confirmed at the hearing.

Lancaster also highlighted Bryant’s commitment to Christianity.   

“He has participated in religious activities, while he’s been in Angola, that’s really been a main point of his community engagement,” Lancaster said. “Through that he’s found significant support, but also the ability to reflect on his own life, and understand the consequences of past behavior, and the importance to improve and be a better person.”

“I’m on the fence about this,” Marabella said at the hearing. But ultimately he voted to grant Bryant’s parole — under the condition that he complete the Louisiana Parole Project’s programing, attend AA meetings, and abide by a 9 p.m. curfew. 

The other two members of the board — Alvin Roche’, Jr. and Jim Wise — joined him in voting in favor of parole with those conditions. 

In a press release, ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms said that “while nothing can make up for the years Mr. Bryant lost to this extreme and unjust sentence, today’s decision by the parole board is a long-overdue victory for Mr. Bryant, his family, and the cause of equal justice for all”

She called on lawmakers to do away with the habitual offender law altogether, and for prosecutors to take a less punitive approach to low-level crimes. 

“Now it is imperative that the Legislature repeal the habitual offender law that allows for these unfair sentences, and for district attorneys across the state to immediately stop seeking extreme penalties for minor offenses,” she said.

At the hearing on Thursday, Bryant said that he had used his 24 years in prison to come to recognize his previous drug addiction and to “be in constant communication with the Lord” to help him with it. After his completion of the Parole Project’s programming, Bryant said that he would go to live with his brother in Shreveport. 

He also apologized to the victims of the crime — the family that lived in the home where the carport was located — that he was in prison for committing back in 1997. According to court records, the homeowner’s daughter noticed a light on in their carport storeroom. She woke her father up, who went into the storeroom and shouted at Bryant, who fled. 

The homeowner called the police, and Bryant was found with hedge clippers that were alleged to have been stolen. 

“Truly I’m sorry for interrupting them, and disturbing them at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Bryant said. 

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...