Judges are human beings like the rest of us. They make smart decisions, and they make decisions that bear little resemblance to logic.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has a tendency—a long history, actually—of making decisions that fall into the latter category. This was evidenced in a July 31, 2020 decision denying a writ of review to an inmate who has served more than two decades in the Louisiana prison system for stealing a pair of hedge clippers.
Fair Wayne Bryant was 38 years old in 1997 when Shreveport, Louisiana police stopped him near his disabled van parked on the road’s side. An ensuing search discovered a pair of hedge clippers in the back of the vehicle. After the police told Bryant that his van looked like one used in an attempted home burglary earlier, he confessed to taking the hedge clippers from the home owner’s carport.
A jury convicted Bryant for attempted simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling the same year. The Caddo Parish District Attorney had indicted Bryant as a “habitual offender” under Louisiana habitual offender law because he had four prior criminal convictions, one of which was a violent offense—a 1979 attempted armed robbery of a cab driver. The other three crimes involved thefts of items valued at less than $500.
Habitual Offender Law Disproportionately Used on Blacks
Louisiana’s habitual offender laws have historically been used by prosecutors to sentence African-American defendants to lengthy prison sentences for relatively minor offenses, including life imprisonment without parole. It is another piece of the inheritance of the Civil War.
As of January 2020, 80 percent of the Louisiana prison system inmates serving “habitual offender” sentences were black. Caddo Parish, the parish in which Bryant was convicted, has a history of racist prosecutors targeting African Americans for harsh prosecutions and keeping African Americans from serving on juries in the parish.
And that is what happened to Fair Wayne Bryant. He received a life sentence without the benefit of parole for stealing that pair of hedge clippers.
Caddo Parish did not elect its first African American district attorney until 2015.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has five white male associate justices and one African-American woman, the Chief Justice. The five male justices voted to let Bryant’s life sentence stand. The Justice, Bernette J. Johnson, was not pleased with their decision.
Habitual Offender Laws are Modern Day “Pig Laws”
In a blistering dissent, Justice Johnson said that Louisiana’s habitual offender laws are a “modern manifestation” of the state’s old “Pig Laws.” Pig Laws replaced the Black Codes enacted after the Civil War by Southern states and were designed to keep “Black people in poverty during Reconstruction,” as reported by the Washington Post.
That is precisely what “habitual offender” laws in all states are—Pig Laws.
Justice Johnson explained:
“Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans. They targeted actions such as stealing cattle and swine—considered stereotypical ‘negro’ behavior—by lowering the threshold for what constituted a crime and increasing the severity of its punishment.
“Pig Laws undoubtedly contributed to the expansion of the Black prison population that began in the 1870’s. These laws remained on the books of most southern states for decades. And this case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a Black man convicted of property crimes. 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.”
What makes the Bryant decision so outrageous is that just three weeks prior the Louisiana Supreme Court handed down what has been called a “landmark decision” that reversed the life without parole sentence given to Derek Harris for the sale of .69 grams of marijuana for $30 under the same Pig Law. On August 6, 2020, Harris was released from prison.
In an August 14, 2020 report, NBC News is reporting that Bryant will have a parole hearing to determine if he should be released.
By any measure, 23 years for stealing pair hedge clippers is excessive and should completely serve the interests of justice, even in Louisiana. But given the Louisiana Supreme Court’s diverse rulings in the Harris/Bryant decisions, we are not so sure.