A lot has changed since Fair Wayne Bryant was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in Louisiana prisons for stealing a pair of hedge clippers more than two decades ago. The Louisiana legislature decided to tweak the state’s habitual offender law, which lets prosecutors request enhanced sentences for defendants with substantial criminal records. That change is what allowed Bryant to regain his freedom after a parole hearing Thursday, reports Nola.com. The parole board’s decision to grant his release came a few months after the state Supreme Court denied a request to review Bryant’s sentence, which he argued was excessive and unconstitutional. Chief Justice Bernette Johnson issued a scathing dissent, saying life imprisonment was grossly disproportionate to the crime of “unsuccessfully attempting to make off with somebody else’s hedge clippers.”
Johnson compared Bryant’s case to the so-called “pig laws” enacted after Reconstruction, which were designed to target poor Black people for crimes of poverty such as stealing swine. “This case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a Black man convicted of property crimes,” Johnson wrote. Louisiana taxpayers have spent more than $500,000 on Bryant’s incarceration. He spent most of that time at the state penitentiary at Angola, the state’s sprawling maximum security prison named for the old slave plantation upon which it was constructed. Louisiana enacted reforms in 2017 aimed at reducing the state’s burgeoning prison population, which remains the nation’s highest rate. When Bryant was convicted in the 1997 hedge clippers case, the habitual offender law applied to minor convictions like a simple burglary of a toolshed, which allowed prosecutors to obtain the life sentence. Now the law requires more serious and violent offenses to meet that threshhold.