Earlier today, we reported on the 150-year sentence just slapped on Bernie Madoff; now that we’ve had a moment to collect our thoughts, here’s what we witnessed in the courtroom.
At 10 a.m. on the dot, officers at the federal courthouse closed the courtroom doors and Bernard Madoff — eyes cast downward, lips pursed, gray hair coiffed — took his place in front of Judge Denny Chin and a room packed with his victims to hear how he would be punished for perpetrating the world’s largest Ponzi scheme.
Victims’ statements constituted the bulk of the proceedings, with nine investors chosen to speak out of the many who wrote letters to the court. (Eleven victims were originally slated to take the mike, but two withdrew at the last moment, according to Chin.) The Ambrosinos were the first to describe their suffering. A retired New York City corrections officer, he spoke of Madoff’s “indescribably heinous crimes,” saying, “As the guy who used to be on the right side of the correction bars, I’ll know what Mr. Madoff is experiencing.” He added: “I would like someone to tell me how long is my sentence.”
Maureen Ann Ebel, 65, used her opportunity behind the microphone to scold the federal regulatory bodies, saying, “The SEC, in its total incompetence and negligence, has let a total psychopath steal from me.” She described the rapid weight loss, insomnia, and paranoia she suffered following the knowledge that she had lost her life savings with Madoff; she has sold most of her possessions and is now forced to work three jobs. She also spoke of her deceased husband, a physician, saying, “He would save someone’s life so that Bernie Madoff could buy his wife another Cartier watch.”
Michael Schwartz, 33, wept as he described the modest, now-obliterated family trust fund set up to care for his mentally disabled brother. “I only hope that his sentence is long enough so that his jail cell will become his coffin,” Schwartz said of Madoff.
With her blonde ringlet curls, yellow halter sundress, and breathy voice balanced on the brink of tears, victim Sharon Lissaur cut the most visually striking figure in the room. In statements uttered barely above a whisper, she pleaded with Madoff. “I was always so careful with my money,” she said, describing how she funneled her life savings from her modeling career into Madoff’s fund. “I’m not asking him; I’m begging him, if he has my money in any offshore accounts that he give it back.” Before she sat down, Lissaur added: “He killed my spirit and shattered my dreams. He killed my trust in people.”
When the victims finished, Madoff’s defense lawyer, Ira Lee Sorkin (whose parents actually lost $900,000 with Madoff), presented his statement to the judge. Perhaps the most unsympathetic character in the room besides Madoff, Sorkin’s plea for leniency (he requested twelve years, just below what he calculated as Madoff’s life expectancy) included arguments that appeared to incense the victims. “There is no doubt that we represent a deeply flawed individual, but we represent a human being. He’s not a statistic or a number.” Sorkin continued: “The magnificence of our legal system is that we do not seek an eye for an eye.” With that, Sorkin drew some grumbling from the victims’ corner. But the real jeers and scoffs came with his closing sentences, when he spoke of “the extent that the government has left [Madoff] and his wife in poverty.” This appeared to do little to ingratiate him to people like Marian Siegman, who had just spoken of her reliance on food stamps and dumpster scavenging as a result of her financial losses. Sorkin repeated his request for a twelve-year sentence, saying, “There is no question that this case has taken an enormous toll on Mr. Madoff and his family but on the victims as well.”
Finally, the man of the hour. Madoff rose, still facing Judge Chin, with his back to the seating area, and delivered what constituted his defense. “I cannot offer you an excuse for my behavior,” he told Chin. “I live in a tormented state now, knowing the pain and suffering I’ve caused … Apologizing and saying I’m sorry — that’s not enough. There’s nothing I can say to correct the things I’ve done.” But Madoff did, for the first time, apologize to his victims publicly and face-to-face. Turning away from Chin to look at the rows of investors behind him, he said “I’m sorry, but I know that doesn’t help you.”
After federal prosecutors repeated their request for the maximum sentence of 150 years, saying that a 12-year sentence would be more appropriate for a “garden-variety fraud case,” Chin began his statement. “Despite all of the emotion in the air, I do not agree that victims or others are seeking mob vengeance,” Chin said. “Objectively speaking, the fraud here was staggering.”
He continued, scolding the defendant before him. “I simply do not get the sense that Mr. Madoff has done all that he could or told all that he knows,” he said, responding to Sorkin’s reasoning that Madoff had been complicit in aiding investigators after he came forward with his crime. Chin also noted that, while he expected to receive the thousands of letters damning Madoff for his sins, he also anticipated letters in defense of Madoff from his family. He received none. “Not a single letter has attested to your good deeds or charitable activities. And that silence is telling.”
Chin went on to detail his three-fold argument for doling out a sentence that would prove largely symbolic, above and beyond what Madoff would reasonably expect to carry out, given his age. And then the verdict: 150 years, the announcement of which caused whoops and cheers in the courtroom.
The prison where Madoff will carry out his sentence has not yet been determined, though Chin said he would recommend imprisonment within the Northeast.
As Madoff’s victims filed out and prepared to congregate for a rally in Foley Square, the largest Ponzi schemer in history stepped out from behind the slick courtroom table, walking his last few steps in in the custom-made suit they helped purchase.