Louisiana’s Supreme Court declined last week to review the life sentence of a Black man who was convicted more than two decades ago of trying to steal a pair of hedge clippers, court documents show.
Fair Wayne Bryant, who is now in his 60s, had asked the court to review the sentence, which he’d argued in earlier appeals was “unconstitutionally harsh.” Five of the court’s seven justices, all white men, denied his request without saying why, a court spokeswoman told NBC News.
One justice, Scott Crichton, recused himself from the case, while Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, a Black woman, wrote in a dissent that the sentence was “excessive” and compared it to post-Reconstruction era laws that mandated harsh penalties for petty theft associated with poverty.
Those laws, she wrote, “were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans.”
The July 31 decision was first reported by The Lens, a Louisiana news site.
Bryant, then 38, was arrested on Jan. 5, 1997, after he took a pair of clippers from a carport storeroom at a home in Shreveport, then ran off with them when the homeowner was alerted to the theft.
A jury convicted him of attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling. Later that year, he was sentenced to life in prison because he was considered a “habitual” offender under state law.
Bryant had several previous convictions, though in her dissent, Johnson pointed out that only one of them was violent, a 1979 attempted armed robbery case in which he served 10 years hard labor.
His other convictions include possession of stolen things, attempted forgery and simple burglary.
“Each of these crimes was an effort to steal something,” Johnson wrote. “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.”
Johnson noted that the state had already paid $518,667 for Bryant's incarceration.
"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," she wrote.
The district attorney whose office has defended Bryant’s conviction and sentencing, James Stewart, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an email, a lawyer who represented Bryant on a past appeal, Peggy Sullivan, said: "My comment is that Justice Johnson said it more eloquently than I could."