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A Louisiana man sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers was granted parole Thursday after spending more than 20 years in prison for the crime.
Fair Wayne Bryant had gotten a life sentence in 1997 under the state’s habitual offender law because the attempted burglary conviction was his fifth felony, Courthouse News Service reports. He had no possibility of parole until the state legislature changed the law in 2018.
The Louisiana Supreme Court had declined to hear Bryant’s case July 31. In a dissent that received widespread publicity, Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson said Bryant’s sentence “is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.”
Bryant’s four prior convictions were for attempted armed robbery, possession of stolen items, attempted check forgery and simple burglary.
“Each of these crimes was an effort to steal something,” Johnson wrote. “Such petty theft is frequently driven by the ravages of poverty or addiction, and often both. It is cruel and unusual to impose a sentence of life in prison at hard labor for the criminal behavior which is most often caused by poverty or addiction.”
Johnson said the case represents the modern manifestation of so-called pig laws that were enacted after the Reconstruction era. The laws introduced extreme sentences for theft associated with poverty and used forced labor as punishment. The laws punished crimes such as stealing cattle and swine.
“Pig laws were largely designed to reenslave African Americans” by lowering the threshold for what constituted a crime and increasing the severity of punishment, Johnson said.
Bryant, 63, told the parole that board he had a drug problem.
“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,” he said.