The Penalty for 'Extraordinary Evil': Madoff Gets 150 Years

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Mario Tama / Getty

Bernard Madoff leaves a Manhattan federal court on March 10, 2009

The federal courtroom erupted in shrieks and loud applause as Judge Denny Chin sentenced disgraced financier Bernard Madoff to 150 years in prison on Monday. In his decision, the judge dismissed Madoff's lawyer's plea for a lighter sentence of 12 years and disputed suggestions that the victims in the fraud were seeking mob vengeance. "The fraud here was staggering" and losses from the scam "off the chart," he said, justifying a sentence that sends a message.

The victims came from all walks of life, and many were "ordinary people who worked hard to save their money and thought it was safe," Chin said. The judge added that he was particularly moved by one victim's statement that described how Madoff assured a woman, whose husband had recently died, that her money was safe and encouraged her to invest more within weeks of the scandal being exposed, even though he knew it was all a fraud. The woman's money is now gone and her home had to be sold, Chin said.

Madoff's Ponzi scheme was an "extraordinary evil" — "not a bloodless crime," as the defense was trying to suggest, Chin said. He added that Madoff had not been forthcoming in helping authorities locate missing assets. "[Madoff] has not been helpful and not done all that he could or told all that he knows."

Madoff, dressed in a charcoal-colored suit and black tie, showed little emotion as the sentence was read. Throughout Monday's hearing, he sat stoically, facing the judge, while nine victims behind him gave emotional statements on how the scam had wiped out their finances and put their futures in jeopardy. One of the most heart-wrenching responses came from Miriam Siegman, who described how she now lives on food stamps, can't afford to buy new reading glasses and sometimes rummages through trash cans to eat. "[Madoff] discarded me like roadkill," the 65-year-old said. "The man who did this had deep contempt for his victims." She said she now feels "shame and humiliation" asking people for help.

When the time came for Madoff to speak, he nervously sipped from a cup of water as he expressed regret for his crime. "Apologizing and saying I'm sorry is not enough," he said. "I feel terrible," he continued, adding that he was tormented every day by the "pain and suffering" he caused his victims. The only time Madoff turned to the victims was for a brief five-second period during his statement, as he offered them a direct apology. Victims later said this brief gesture meant nothing to them.

Outside the courthouse hundreds of people, including many victims and the news media, waited to hear the sentence. When news came just before midday, applause broke out.

Following the sentencing, Madoff's wife Ruth issued a statement. "I am breaking my silence now because my reluctance to speak has been interpreted as indifference or lack of sympathy for the victims of my husband Bernie's crime, which is exactly the opposite of the truth," she said. "Many of my husband's investors were my close friends and family," she said. "And in the days since December, I have read, with immense pain, the wrenching stories of people whose life savings have evaporated because of his crime."

Mrs. Madoff said she recognizes that lives have been upended and futures taken away. "I am embarrassed and ashamed. Like everyone else, I feel betrayed and confused," she said. "The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years."

Madoff has 10 days to appeal the sentence. Ira Sorkin, Madoff's attorney, says a decision on an appeal has not yet been made.

Madoff pleaded guilty on March 12 to 11 felony counts, including securities fraud, perjury, investment-adviser fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, three counts of money laundering, false filings with the SEC and theft from an employee benefit plan. The scam's victims included high-profile celebrity names such as actress Kyra Sedgwick, actor Kevin Bacon, director Steven Spielberg, actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, actor John Malkovich, New York Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman and the family trust of DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, as well as charities, universities, hedge funds, banks and pension funds around the world.

Mr. Madoff's lawyer, Ira Sorkin, had asked for only a 12-year sentence for his client, noting that Madoff's advanced age meant he has a life expectancy of only another 13 years. "A prison term of 12 years — just short of an effective life sentence — will sufficiently address the goals of deterrence, protecting the public and promoting respect for the law," wrote Sorkin in a letter to the judge last week. He said his client was seeking "neither mercy nor sympathy" and recognized the "anger and resentment" in the victims' impact statements, but felt they were looking for a "type of mob vengeance" that would "render meaningless the role of the Court." Sorkin cited "death threats and anti-Semitic e-mails" as evidence of the hysteria and urged the judge to "set aside emotion and hysteria" and hand down a sentence "proportionate" to the crime.

Federal prosecutors balked at Sorkin's suggestion and demanded a 150-year sentence. "He engaged in wholesale fraud for more than a generation," said Marc Litt, an assistant U.S. Attorney, in a note to the judge. "The sheer scale of the Madoff fraud calls for severe punishment."

However, previous white-collar criminals have received far stiffer sentences that Sorkin's proposed 12-year term. Adelphia Communications' former finance chief Timothy Rigas is serving a 20-year term; former WorldCom chief executive Bernard Ebbers, who was 63 at the time of his sentencing, was given 25 years; and former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling got 24 years. In April 2008, a federal judge in Colorado sentenced 72-year-old Norman Schmidt to 330 years for using money from his investment scheme to purchase properties near Aspen and eight NASCAR race cars, among other items. Similar to Madoff's scheme, Schmidt's firm would send investors fraudulent monthly statements claiming big returns on their investments and urged them to contribute more cash.

Judge Chin did not direct Madoff to a particular prison, though it is possible that he will be sent to a maximum-security facility like the federal prison in Marion, Ill. Though Madoff, at 71, is not a dangerous felon, his risk of flight is high, given his effective life sentence. A harsh maximum-security facility may also be an indirect way to pressure Madoff to cooperate and earn his way to a more lax prison.