Mary Byrd with her defense attorney, Bill McKenney, during her sentencing hearing Thursday morning. She will spend about two years in prison for stealing more than $16,000 from county coffers. She has made full restitution, said Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
JONESBORO — The former director of Clayton County Senior Services should have known better than to steal from the programs she was overseeing.
That was the message from Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons before he sentenced Mary Byrd to two years in prison, followed by one on probation.
Her defense attorney, Bill McKenney, argued that because a previous defendant in an unrelated case — a 19-year-old charged with burglary — was allowed to plead as a first offender, Byrd was due the same treatment. Simmons agreed Byrd could plead as a first offender but not for the reason McKenney proposed.
“There is a big difference in these two cases,” he said. “Residential burglary is serious and I understand that. But this is a 57-year-old and a 19-year-old. The 57-year-old is three times his age. We expect more of people as they age and certainly from our public officials. That’s the disappointing aspect of this.”
Byrd faced 35 counts of theft by taking, shredding documents and bribing an employee to lie for her. An internal audit in 2013 showed she took more than $16,000 from programs that fed senior citizens and provided resources to grandparents raising their grandchildren.
Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said there was a waiting list for seniors to get Meals on Wheels because of a shortage of funds.
“We need to take into consideration the victims, who are our seniors,” she said.
“She was supposed to be helping serve the public,” he said. “Instead, she was serving herself.”
Lawson said Byrd has made full restitution.
McKenney said 24 letters in support of Byrd were submitted from ministers, the Clayton County Board of Commission, executive director of Senior Services, Clayton County Housing Authority, state senators, NAACP and people Byrd has helped over the years.
“They all attest to her dedication until this happened,” he said. “This was a misjudgment and she’s stepped up to the plate to take responsibility.”
Lawson said records showed Byrd spent the money on trips to places like Las Vegas and Biloxi, Miss.
“I’m not saying she was gambling, those are places where gambling happens, she could have been visiting family or friends, I don’t know,” she said.
Many of her supporters attended the sentencing hearing but no one spoke on her behalf. Senior citizens who are part of the county’s programs also attended and were displeased with the outcome.
“I guess you can steal any amount of money as long as you pay it back,” said one woman on the way out of the courtroom. “The people with the money and the best attorneys get the best deals.”