A Black man in Louisiana sentenced to life in prison after stealing hedge clippers was granted parole after serving 23 years behind bars, months after the state’s Supreme Court declined to review his sentence, NBC News reported.
Fair Wayne Bryant, 63, was sentenced in 1997 under the state’s habitual offender law. On Thursday, the Board of Pardons and Committee on Parole voted for his release, records show. The 3-0 vote during an online meeting of the Committee on Parole confirmed Bryant was a free man, with conditions. Bryant walked out of prison later that day after serving more than 20 years at the state penitentiary in Angola, his attorney said, reported NBC.
Under the conditions of his parole, Bryant is required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, adhere to a curfew and complete community service, the news outlet reported.
The case drew national attention earlier this year when a state Supreme Court panel denied his release despite a dissenting opinion from the court’s only Black justice, who called the case a “modern manifestation” of Jim Crow laws aimed at jailing Black people for simple crime, reported the Associated Press.
Bryant was arrested on Jan. 5, 1997, after he took a pair of hedge clippers from a carport storage room at a home in Shreveport, then ran off with them when the homeowner was alerted to the theft, NBC reported.
“These laws remained on the books of most southern states for decades,” wrote Chief Justice Bernette Johnson in an article in The Guardian in August. “And this case demonstrates their modern manifestation: harsh habitual offender laws that permit a life sentence for a black man convicted of a property crime.”
She further wrote: “This man’s life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of three hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.”
Johnson also noted that taxpayers had spent nearly $519,000 to keep Bryant locked up — and would dole out nearly $1 million if he were to stay in prison for another 20 years.
Bryant received the harsh sentence because he was convicted as a habitual offender. His record lists 22 arrests and 11 convictions, among them four felonies that included an attempted armed robbery in 1979.
But he told the parole panel that he struggled with alcohol and cocaine abuse at the time and had cleaned up his act in prison, the Associated Press reported.
“I had a drug problem,” he said, according to the AP. “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.”
The decision to parole him was heralded by civil rights activists. The Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called the board's decision to grant parole a "long-overdue victory."
“Now it is imperative that the legislature repeal the habitual offender law the allows for these unfair sentences,” said Alanah Odoms, the executive director of the Louisiana ACLU. “And for district attorneys across the state to immediately stop seeking extreme penalties for minor offenses.”
Bryant will also enter into a program that helps prisoners adjust to life after they are released. Eventually, he will be allowed to live with his brother in Shreveport, NBC reported.