Louisiana's only Black Supreme Court judge condemns keeping man in jail for life over theft

Bernette Johnson, chief justice for the Louisiana Supreme Court, wrote a fiery dissent last week on the court's decision to turn away a review request of a man who is serving a life sentence for attempted theft.

Fair Wayne Bryant was arrested in 1997, accused of entering a carport in Shreveport, La., and stealing a pair of hedge clippers. Bryant admitted that he went into carport, but said that he was looking for spare gas because his car had broken down. The clippers that police found in his car, Bryant claimed, belonged to his wife.

Bryant was charged with attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling and convicted of the crime later in 1997. Because it was Bryant's fifth felony conviction, prosecutors invoked harsh habitual offender laws that resulted in a life sentence in prison without parole.

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Of his previous four felonies, three of them were nonviolent.

In 2000, Louisiana’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said that Bryant's sentence was appropriate since he had spent so much time in prison already as an adult.

"This 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," the appeals court ruled at the time.

In 2001, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear Bryant's direct appeal; Johnson dissented in that case too.

Nearly 20 years later, Bryant's case made its way back to Louisiana's highest court, this time stemming from a 2018 appeal that argued that Bryant was illegally sentenced and should have been appointed legal counsel during a resentencing hearing.

The latest appeal, however, was rejected by a higher court and last Friday and the state Supreme Court followed suit, according to The Lens NOLA — a nonprofit news site based in New Orleans that first reported the story.

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In her dissent, Johnson — the court's only Black justice — said that the state's habitual offender laws are a “modern manifestation” of the “Pig Laws," that are unjust and were widely used during Reconstruction to continue the oppression of Black people in the American South.

"Since his conviction in 1997, Mr. Bryant’s incarceration has cost Louisiana taxpayers approximately $518,667.  Arrested at 38, Mr. Bryant has already spent nearly 23 years in prison and is now over 60 years old," Johnson wrote. "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 added: "This man’s life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of 3 hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose."