Fair Wayne Bryant has been in prison since 1997. He was convicted of stealing a set of hedge clippers and was given a life sentence. Last Friday, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear Bryant's appeal of the sentence, meaning the 62-year-old man will likely die in prison, Fox News reported.
The judge was able to issue such a harsh sentence under the state's habitual offender law, which allows for people who have committed a certain number of felonies to be sentenced to life, even if those felonies are not violent in nature. Nearly 80% of those in Louisiana prisons under habitual offender sentences are black.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, the only justice who dissented, wrote in her dissent that the sentence was unnecessarily harsh and unconstitutional. Johnson is the state's first black chief justice. The other five justices, who are all white males, did not offer written explanation for their decision.
"A permissible sentence under Louisiana's habitual offender sentencing scheme may still violate a defendant's constitutional right not to be subjected to excessive punishment," Johnson wrote in her dissent. "A sentence is unconstitutionally excessive under Article 1 section 20 of the Louisiana Constitution if it makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment or amounts to nothing more than the purposeful imposition of pain and suffering and is grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime."
Bryant had four previous convictions. In 1979, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempted armed robbery. In 1987, he was convicted of possession of stolen property. In 1989, he was convicted of attempted check forgery of a $150 check. And in 1992, he was convicted of simple burglary of an inhabited dwelling.
Johnson also noted that the sentence was extremely costly to taxpayers.
"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."
Johnson said the harsh sentence was reminiscent of post-Reconstruction laws known as "Pig Laws" that targeted black Americans with harsh sentences for petty crimes as a way of re-enslaving them.
"Pig Laws undoubtedly contributed to the expansion of the Black prison population that began in the 1870s," Johnson wrote. "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."