Black Man who is Serving Life Sentence For Stealing Hedge Clippers Granted Parole after 23 years

A man from Louisiana who is serving a life sentence for stealing a pair of hedge  clippers in 1997 was paroled on Thursday, after spending more than two decades in  prison for his crime.

That act of simple burglary would not have normally led to a life sentence. But over  the previous two decades, Fair Wayne Bryant had committed four other felonies,  including armed robbery of a cab driver, stealing merchandise from a store, forging  a check for $150, and stealing property from somebody’s home.

Because Louisiana had a so-called “habitual offender” law for people with multiple  felony convictions, and because Bryant’s 1979 armed robbery was considered a  “violent” crime, he was given a life sentence for taking the hedge clippers.

Bryant’s story became a cause célèbre for the perceived unfairness of habitual  offender laws — also known colloquially as “three-strikes laws.” Many have derided  the laws as racist, including Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette  Johnson, who called the state’s law a “modern manifestation” of 19th century “Pig  Laws” designed to re-enslave African Americans for committing minor crimes.  Bryant is Black.

Despite multiple appeals, including Bryant’s failed bid this year to  have the Louisiana Supreme Court review his sentence, Bryant stayed behind bars  — until last week. In a 3-0 decision, the state’s parole board granted the 63-year-old  Bryant his freedom.

“Mr. Bryant was given a second chance today,” Robert Lancaster, a lawyer who  represented Bryant at his parole hearing, gave his statement to The New York Times. “His life sentence, a result of an oppressive habitual sentencing scheme,  came after a series of minor pecuniary crimes to fuel an untreated drug addiction.  He was sentenced to a life in prison instead of given the help he needed.”

During his online parole hearing Thursday, the parole committee focused at length  on Bryant’s extensive arrest record, and said Bryant would likely have stolen more  items in 1997 if the homeowner did not chase him away. They also discussed his  history of alcohol and cocaine use.

“I had a drug problem,” Bryant told them, according to The Associated Press. “But  I’ve had 24 years to recognize that problem and to be in constant communication  with the Lord to help me with that problem.”

As one of the conditions of his release, Bryant will have to attend Alcoholics  Anonymous meetings, observe a 9 p.m. curfew, and do community service.

As part of the comprehensive criminal justice reform package in 2017, the Louisiana  state legislature modified its habitual offender law to reduce some of the mandatory  sentences to bring them in line with similar laws in other states. And in 2019, Gov.  John Bel Edwards approved a new law that would make it harder for prosecutors to  seek longer sentences because of previous crimes.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has called for the state to go further.  “It is imperative that the Legislature repeal the habitual offender law that allows for  these unfair sentences, and for district attorneys across the state to immediately  stop seeking extreme penalties for minor offenses,” said Alanah Odoms, ACLU of  Louisiana executive director.

The Louisiana Parole Project, which worked on the case, has set up a GoFundMe page for Bryant. They say donations will go toward his driving school, clothing,  personal items, “and other immediate needs that help to ensure that his transition  back into society is a successful one.”