Madoff gets 150 years for 'extraordinarily evil' crime

The harsh sentence is meant to send a message, but is that necessary?

Mike Segar/REUTERS
Media pack the sidewalks for the sentencing hearing for convicted swindler Bernard Madoff outside the courthouse in lower Manhattan Monday.

The 150-year sentence handed down to Bernard Madoff – mastermind of the largest Ponzi scheme in modern history – is the third-largest in the annals of US financial fraud.

Mr. Madoff’s sentence, delivered by a federal court in New York, is six times longer than what was meted out to the top executives of WorldCom and Enron Corp. – two of the notable recent financial scandals.

Some lawyers praise Judge Denny Chin’s decision Monday as an important symbolic show of justice. Others criticize it as “absurd” given Madoff’s advanced age. But many of his victims simply welcomed it as a relief.

“I cried when I heard it, I felt justice had been done,” says Karen Audet, a retired school teacher from Ft. Lauderdale,Fla., who lost her $225,000 pension in an investment fund organized by a member of her church, who had invested it with Madoff’s company.

In March, the New York and Palm Beach-based swindler pleaded guilty to a laundry list of fraud charges in what could amount to a $65 billion swindle of wealthy friends and associates, other investment firms, and some internationally-known philanthropies.

At Madoff’s sentencing Monday, Judge Chin said “symbolism” was important to “deter future crimes” but also as “retribution.”

“The message must be sent that Mr. Madoff's crimes were extraordinarily evil, and that this kind of manipulation of the system is not just a bloodless crime that takes place on paper, but one instead that takes a staggering toll,” Chin told the courtroom. Madoff showed no emotion, but had earlier told some of his victims gathered in the court room that he lived “in a tormented state now, knowing all the pain and suffering I've created."

After the sentencing, his wife Ruth issued a statement saying, “I am embarrassed and ashamed. Like everyone else, I feel betrayed and confused. The man who committed this horrible fraud is not the man whom I have known for all these years.”

Some lawyers say the judge went too far with the 150-year sentence, as Madoff is already 71.

“It’s absurd. On several levels, 150 years is well deserved, if you measure the effect on so many people, including charitable institutions,” says James Cohen, a criminal law professor at Fordham Law School in New York. “But this guy isn’t going to live 150 years. So what is the point? Give him 30 years if you want to make a point that you’ll die in jail if you’re going to engage in this kind of conduct.”

The criminal justice system should not be used for “symbolism,” he added. But other lawyers applaud the judge’s decision, saying a “symbolic message” was warranted.

“[A]ny sentence would effectively amount to a life sentence for him, so it doesn’t matter if the judge imposed 20 years or 200 years” says Robert Mintz, former state prosecutor and a partner at McCarter & English in Newark, N.J. The sentence was "a symbolic gesture to put the crime into context – to make sure that the sentence reflected the judge’s sense that this was a crime of unprecedented proportions, and thus didn’t warrant a sentence similar to other financial frauds.”

The sentence reflects the court’s function as “teacher,” not just an arbiter of law, say others. The symbolism of the punishment “is an attempt to create proportionality … with the extraordinary depths of the economic hardship that he’s done to so many people,” says Robert Muldoon, a partner with Sherin & Lodgen in Boston. “Judges often use this kind of thing as an educational tool. It wasn’t just vengeance.”

Ms. Audet, the retired school teacher, is helping to raise one of her grandchildren and has a son with a serious medical condition who needs help. As a result of her loss, her husband has had to put off retirement.

But she says she will do her best to forgive Madoff, despite the anguish she feels “each time I have to write a check.”

“I can forgive, I will have to forgive because of my faith,” she says. “I can’t keep holding on to this thing. I have very strong faith that God will provide.”

Information from the AP was used in this report.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.