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Life in Prison, Ponzi Wannabes

Law of the Land blog: Madoff's 150 years is a warning to others of his ilk.

Overshadowed by all the headlines surrounding the sentencing of Bernie Madoff comes word of Judge Denny Chin’s new nickname – you heard it here first, folks – Maximum Chin.

One hundred and fifty years is a long time, people, and to help keep it in perspective, note that the oldest living person in Europe died the other day at the age of 113, and that the oldest person on the planet today is 115 . Slavery was legal in the U.S. 150 years ago. So was hanging horse thieves. There’s actually a Web site that has the brass to take a crack at listing everything that’s changed or been introduced to humankind over the past century and a half (nukes, porn, running water, the internal-combustion engine ... ).

So let it be stipulated then that 15 decades is an eternity is many respects. But it’s not like Madoff, who is 71, is without options, and he’s a smart man so there are at least four possibilities he must be considering. Pick the one you think is most likely. Winners will be announced sometime in the future.

(b) Getting the president to commute his sentence (fat chance).

(c) Having his head frozen and then thawed once they work out the kinks in cryogenics; walking away (with a new body!) a free man in the year 2159.

(a) Busting out a la Shawshank Redemption and living in quiet anonymity on a beach somewhere in Mexico , awaiting his former cell/soul mate – whoever that ends up being (sorry Morgan Freeman won’t be available).

(d) Dying behind bars an old, broken and extraordinarily unpopular man.


Madoff’s own wife, who didn’t even show up at his sentencing on Monday, issued a statement on Friday in which she disowned him.

“All those touched by this fraud feel betrayed, disbelieving the nightmare they woke to,” she said. “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.”

His own wife. Ouch.

The fact that nobody – NOBODY – stood up as a character witness to talk about Madoff’s good works or his gentle heart must’ve played a big part in Maximum Chin’s decision. And so the gavel boomed and the cell door clanged and nary an objection was heard.


William Devaney , a former federal prosecutor who’s now a Manhattan-based white-collar criminal defense attorney for Venable, talked to me a few hours after Madoff’s sentencing, and said it wasn’t just the absence of character witnesses that doomed Madoff. Even the 12-year sentence that the defense had asked for could’ve been a death sentence, for all practical purposes, and 20 years would’ve certainly been the final nail in the coffin.

“What the judge was trying to do was put an exclamation point on the severity of the crime and on the impact on the victims,” Devaney said. And the severity and the impact were horrific – even worse than originally reported. (When news broke late last year that Madoff had confessed to a vast Ponzi scheme, the damage was said to total $50 billion. The number being kicked around Monday was $65 billion.)

Madoff will serve out his years in a medium-security federal facility somewhere, actually a nice upgrade from his current dingy quarters at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. At a medium-security U.S. prison, inmates typically have generous mobility, the opportunity to takes classes, go to the gym, watch TV and surf the Internet.

And he will probably also be safe. “There aren’t going to be a lot of Madoff victims in a medium-security prison,” Devaney notes.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of Bernie Madoff, which brings up another option (e), which I forgot to list above.

“My sense is he’ll appeal,” Devaney said. “But it’ll be difficult to be successful because the standard on appeal is one of reasonableness -- whether 150 years is reasonable, and it probably is, given the number of the victims, the amount of money involved, the fact that he brought down a number of charities.”

Devaney’s bottom line: “You can get a life sentence for a white-collar crime.”

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