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Black man serving life sentence for stealing hedge clippers granted parole

Fair Wayne Bryant was sentenced in 1997 under the state's habitual offender law. On Thursday, a parole committee voted for his release.

A Black man in Louisiana serving life in prison for stealing hedge clippers more than two decades ago was granted parole — months after the state's Supreme Court declined to review his sentence.

The Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole voted Thursday to release Fair Wayne Bryant, 63, records show. He walked out of prison later that day after serving more than 20 years at the state penitentiary in Angola, his attorney said.

Bryant will enter into a program in Baton Rouge that helps prisoners adjust to life after they are released. Eventually, he will be allowed to live with his brother in Shreveport.

Under the conditions of his parole, Bryant will have a curfew, must attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and complete community service.

The Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union called the board's decision to grant parole a "long-overdue victory."

Fair Wayne Bryant leaves the state penitentiary in Angola, La., on Oct. 15, 2020, a few hours after his parole hearing.
Fair Wayne Bryant leaves the state penitentiary in Angola, La., on Oct. 15, 2020, a few hours after his parole hearing.Kerry Myers / Louisiana Parole Project

Bryant was 38 when he was arrested in January 1997 for taking a pair of clippers from a carport storeroom at a home in Shreveport. The homeowner was alerted to the theft and chased Bryant off.

That same year, a jury convicted him of attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling, and Bryant, who had previous convictions, was sentenced to life in prison because he was considered a "habitual" offender under state law.

Bryant in previous appeals argued that his sentence was "unconstitutionally harsh." But in July, the state's Supreme Court declined to review his sentence. A court spokesperson told NBC News in August that five of the court's seven justices, all white men, denied his request without giving an explanation.

One justice, Scott Crichton, recused himself from the case while Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote in a dissent that his sentence was "excessive."

"This man’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," Johnson wrote, comparing it to the post-Reconstruction era laws that mandated harsh penalties for petty theft associated with poverty.

She said those laws “were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans" and "undoubtedly contributed to the expansion of the Black prison population that began in the 1870s."

"And this case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a Black man convicted of property crimes," Johnson wrote.

Bryant had several past convictions, including the possession of stolen things, simple burglary and attempted forgery. His only violent conviction, the chief justice noted in her dissent, was for armed robbery in 1979.

Neither the severity of Bryant's sentence nor its racial implications were addressed during Thursday's parole panel. The board members, two white and one Black, noted Bryant's past criminal history.

They also said that during his imprisonment he attended drug and anger management programs and had not had any recent disciplinary problems.

Bryant told the panel that he had a drug problem but said during his time in prison he's been able to "recognize that problem and to be in constant communication with the Lord to help me with that problem.”

His attorney, Robert Lancaster, said he hopes his client's case shows that habitual offender laws need to change.

“Because of his prior history of petty crimes to fuel a drug addiction, Mr. Bryant was sentenced to a life in prison rather than given the help he needed to recover from his drug addiction," Lancaster said in a statement. "Finally, after 24 years in prison, he has been given a second chance."