NEW YORK (Reuters) - The 150-year sentence meted out to Bernard Madoff surprised some legal experts, who say it far exceeds the punishments handed down to other big-time corporate scoundrels and may not send the intended message to other would-be crooks.
The sentence handed down on Monday was six times longer than the 25-year and 24-year prison terms being served by former Chief Executives Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom Inc and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron.
At an emotional hearing in Manhattan federal court on Monday, Judge Denny Chin said the symbolism of any sentence above 20 or 25 years, effectively life for the 71-year-old Madoff, was important.
“The judge could have accomplished the same result, a life sentence, by sentencing Madoff to 30 or 50 years,” said James Cohen, law professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York.
“Making sure he leaves prison in a coffin is entirely correct, but what does it mean?”
Chin agreed with prosecutors that Madoff should receive the statutory maximum incarceration of 150 years. The judge rejected arguments by the swindler’s lawyer for a 12-year sentence.
Madoff pleaded guilty in March to criminal charges, including securities fraud, money laundering and perjury in an unprecedented global scam that prosecutors said drew in as much as $65 billion.
Law professor Jayne Barnard of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, questioned whether the full sentence allowed would be a deterrent.
“I’m not surprised it exceeded his life expectancy, but I was surprised it was the full 150,” said Barnard, who was in court. “I’d love to think that the mini-Madoffs out there would think that what happened today has something to do with them, but I suspect most of them do not.”
Madoff’s term is not the highest for a white collar criminal, but it put him in a small class of those who have been sentenced to more than a century in prison.
Some of the defrauded investors cheered and clapped in court when the judge handed down the sentence, but a few said later the punishment could not bring back what they lost.
“Happiness? Give me my family’s wealth back and maybe then I could be happy,” said Marc LaBianca, 41, of Long Island, who lost more than $1 million while his in-laws were bilked out of several million dollars. “I am praying to God to keep my house.”
Of the thousands swindled in the multibillion-dollar fraud spanning decades, nine spoke at the hearing of family savings lost, emotional distress and loss of trust in the financial system.
The judge said he had taken into account sentences imposed in other financial fraud cases in the same U.S. District Court, which is within walking distance of the Wall Street area.
“But frankly, none of these other cases is comparable to this case in terms of the scope, duration and enormity of the fraud, and the degree of the betrayal,” Chin said.
Many of those bilked have spoken out against the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which missed Madoff’s fraud, despite investigating him numerous times.
A spokesman for the Obama administration, which took office in January amid the worst financial crisis in decades, said the sentence sent a signal to investors who handle other people’s money of their serious responsibility.
But Boston University law professor Tamar Frankel said: “Punishing Madoff, who caused so much grief to so many people, is not the main issue. It’s the leadership of the U.S. financial system.”
The case is USA V Madoff 09-213 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan)
Reporting by Grant McCool; editing by Andre Grenon