Bryant insisted the clippers police found in the van belonged to his wife, but he did make a confession to the officers: After his vehicle had broken down on an unfamiliar road, he had entered a carport in search of a tank of gas.
That disclosure would eventually land Bryant life in prison, a sentence that has effectively been rubber-stamped by the state’s highest legal authority.
The lone Black judge on the bench was the only one to disagree. In a searing dissent, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson said Bryant’s sentence was only due to Louisiana’s harsh habitual offender laws, a “modern manifestation” of the “Pig Laws” designed to keep Black people in poverty during Reconstruction.
“Mr. Bryant has already spent nearly 23 years in prison and is now over 60 years old,” she 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.”
The decision from the state Supreme Court gives Bryant few, if any, options for recourse to leave Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the country’s largest maximum-security prison, which is also the site of a former slave plantation.
In her dissent, Johnson — the court’s first Black chief justice — drew a straight line from slavery to the laws that she said enabled Louisiana prosecutors to send Bryant to Angola for the rest of his life.
In the years following Reconstruction, she wrote, Southern states introduced extreme sentences for petty theft, such as stealing cattle and swine, that criminalized recently freed African Americans who were still struggling to come out of poverty.
Much like Black Codes before them, they allowed states to sentence people to forced labor. Under these laws, the Black prison population in the Deep South exploded starting in the 1870s.
“Pig Laws were largely designed to re-enslave African Americans,” Johnson wrote.
Those same laws, she argued, evolved into Louisiana’s habitual offender laws, which allows prosecutors to seek harsher sentences for lesser crimes if a defendant has previous convictions.
Bryant is one of them. He was first convicted in 1979, serving 10 years for the attempted armed robbery of a cabdriver. Johnson pointed out the rest of his three convictions were nonviolent: possessing some stolen goods from a Radio Shack; trying to forge a $150 check, and then in 1992 breaking into a home and stealing personal property, for which he served another four years in prison.
When a jury convicted him of attempted simple burglary five years later over the hedge clippers, prosecutors invoked the habitual offender laws to obtain a sentence of life without parole. Because Bryant had four prior felony convictions, the sentence was legal at the time under Louisiana statutes, they said.
Although Bryant challenged the sentence as unconstitutionally excessive, the judges he appealed to disagreed.
In 2000, Louisiana’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal said a life sentence was an appropriate punishment because Bryant had already spent so long in prison as an adult.
The “litany of convictions and the brevity of the periods during which defendant was not in custody for a new offense,” that court wrote, “is ample support for the sentence imposed in this case.”
Following two appeals, Bryant was given the possibility of parole. He argued he had received an illegal sentence and should have been appointed a lawyer during a resentencing hearing. But his motions were denied by higher courts — and last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court agreed.
Except for Johnson, who argued the sentence constituted a cruel and excessively harsh punishment.
“This man’s life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers,” she wrote, “is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.”