ATLANTA - Did a Fulton County judge make a “mistake of a lifetime”? Some claim she did by releasing a teen who police say later shot and killed a father leaving Atlanta’s Capital City Club.
The Atlanta woman who encouraged the judge to release Jayden Myrick so he could attend her program spoke only to the FOX 5 I-Team.
"Our sincerest condolences go out to that family,” stressed Gwendolyn Sands, the 72-year-old retired educator who has run Visions Unlimited since 2006. “I was devastated, disappointed and a bit discouraged.”
Visions Unlimited has no paid staff, no office. They say they take no money for their services. The non-profit uses volunteers and space at a local library to teach life skills and GED classes. They say they help around 50 young offenders each year get on the right path and don't become even more serious criminals in adult detention.
Seventeen-year-old Jayden Myrick will not be a success story.
Atlanta police say Myrick held up a group of wedding guests outside a private club in July. When Christian Broder walked toward him after surrendering his wallet, police say Myrick shot him in the stomach. Broder died two weeks later.
Even now the outrage is aimed squarely at Fulton County Superior Court Judge Doris Downs who released Myrick early... and the diversion program that took him in.
"There was no evidence to us that we would expect this kind of behavior,” insisted Ms. Sands.
But prosecutors repeatedly warned in court there was plenty of evidence. A robbery conviction when he was 14. Thirty-two misconduct violations and an aggravated assault charge while he was in juvenile detention. Photos of gang symbols and drugs on social media. Evidence he ran a gang behind bars. Accusations that he forced other youth offenders to eat out of a courthouse toilet while he waited to go before Judge Downs.
In a series of hearings from August, 2017 through March of this year, Visions Unlimited's founder appeared in court as an advocate for Myrick, calling him "an excellent candidate for rehabilitation for making that 180-degree change."
In November she even told judge Downs Myrick could live with her, although she says now that was never a serious plan and Myrick remained in jail. In January, after Ms. Sands underwent surgery, the judge agreed to release Myrick to his mother.
"(The state) says we've made the mistake of a lifetime," Downs told Myrick. "And I'm hoping we're right... I'm pulling for you Mr. Myrick... I go to sleep at night and I'm wondering where you are and what you are up to, and Ms. Sands does, too."
After three years in custody, Myrick would finally leave the Fulton County jail in February and soon begin his GED classes at Visions. Four months later, he'd be back, charged with murder.
"What do you say to the people who believe that if Jayden Myrick was not put into your program that Christian Broder would still be alive today?” I asked Ms. Sands.
“You're going to have to repeat that because from where I'm sitting, whether or not he was in Visions or not, or whether or not Judge Downs gave him a second chance, he made the decision. He made this very, very poor decision."
"Still, though, you lobbied Judge Downs to take care of him, to release him to you. And if you had not done that, perhaps he would have been in prison instead of on the streets.”
“OK, that's also an erroneous statement,” she responded. “He was never supposed to come live with me. To have media portray me as the culprit... has been emotionally stressful."
At one point, Visions took in more than a million dollars a year in donations, with programs in several Atlanta public schools and community centers. But Ms. Sands says a bout with cancer in 2011, and a dispute over who was responsible for paying some employees, convinced her to scale back her efforts. Visions Unlimited continues to renew its corporate listing with the Secretary of State’s office each year, but stopped renewing its business license or filing tax returns. They say they have no income.
But they still have students. The FOX 5 I-Team sat in on a Visions life skills class. Even after a senseless crime that shined a spotlight on this program, Fulton County judges continue to send offenders to Ms. Sands. Six convicted criminals out on probation -- all under age 24 -- sat quietly giving the composed, 72-year-old retired educator their undivided attention.
One of the students in the class we visited had committed armed robbery, the same sort of crime that started Jayden Myrick's life behind bars.