Black man serving life for stealing hedge clippers paroled in Louisiana

A Black man whose life sentence for making off with hedge clippers in a 1997 burglary drew scathing criticism from the chief justice of Louisiana’s Supreme Court was granted parole Thursday.

The 3-0 vote during an online meeting of the Committee on Parole means freedom, with conditions, for Fair Wayne Bryant.

Louisiana’s Supreme Court had denied release for Bryant, 63, earlier this year for the burglary from a carport storage room.

The case drew national attention for a dissent by Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, the high court's only Black justice. She said the habitual offender law under which Bryant was sentenced was a “modern manifestation” of Jim Crow era laws aimed at jailing Black people for simple crime.

The head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said the decision was long overdue.

“Now 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,” Alanah Odoms, the group's executive director, said in an emailed statement.

Neither the severity of the sentence nor its racial implications were addressed by the parole panel. The members, two white and one Black, concentrated on Bryant's extensive arrest record, noting that the 1997 burglary took place at an inhabited dwelling and that he likely would have stolen more had he not been surprised and chased away by the homeowner. They also talked extensively about his history of alcohol and cocaine use.

“I had a drug problem,” said Bryant, who was represented at the hearing by attorney and LSU law professor Robert Lancaster. “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.”

Board members noted that Bryant, imprisoned at the state penitentiary in Angola, participated in prison drug and anger management programs and his lack of recent disciplinary problems before voting to grant parole.

Conditions of Bryant’s parole include mandatory attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew and community service. He is to first enter a program in Baton Rouge with the Louisiana Parole Project, a nonprofit that helps released prisoners adjust to freedom. He will eventually live with his brother in Shreveport.

“He has a support system that he's never had," Andrew Hundley of the Louisiana Parole Project told panel members.

Bryant drew the harsh sentence after he was convicted in 1997 for the burglary of a store room in a carport at a home in Shreveport.

His record, panel members said, included 22 arrests and 11 convictions. Court records said the convictions included four other felonies: a 1979 attempted armed robbery conviction, a crime classified as violent under Louisiana law; and three subsequent nonviolent crimes — possession of stolen things in 1987, attempted forgery of a $150 check in 1989 and simple burglary in 1992.