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November 6, 2016

Another big NYC white-collar sentencing produces another way-below-guideline sentence

This USA Today article, headlined "Wall Street fraud sentencing prompts tears and debate," provides the highlights of a high-profile federal fraud sentencing that took place in Manhattan on this past Friday. Here are some of the details:

It was an emotional federal court sentencing, with the future of an Ivy League-educated former private equity executive hanging in the scales of justice.  

The prosecution said Andrew Caspersen, a scion of a wealthy business family, should get as much as a 15-year-plus prison sentence for executing a Ponzi-like scam that collectively bilked about a dozen of his clients, family members, and his investment company out of roughly $46 million.  The defense said Caspersen never intended to steal and betray. Asking for leniency, his attorney, Paul Shechtman presented evidence to show the 40-year-old father of two had been gripped by a pathological gambling addiction.

On the bench in the 14th-floor Manhattan courtroom sat U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, a renowned legal independent and author of a recent essay that almost seemed to foreshadow the proceeding.  "Distinctions of intent frequently determine, as a matter of law, the difference between going to prison and going free," Rakoff wrote in The New York Review of Books in his examination of neuroscience and the law.  What ensued was a nearly three-hour debate over whether and how much gambling addiction should factor in the sentence — complete with references to "The Gambler," a short novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

By the end, Caspersen and his wife, Christina, wept as they held one another in the courtroom.  Shechtman brushed away tears of his own.  And Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a statement that noted Caspersen had been sentenced — but made no comment on the punishment.

The prosecution attacked the gambling addiction defense from the start. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Magdo argued that 2014-2016 scam run by the Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate had been carefully calculated. In a sentencing memo to the court, she noted that Caspersen fooled his roughly dozen victims by incorporating sham entities with names similar to real private equity firms.

The victims lost millions.  Some, investment professionals themselves, declined to present victim statements by name, fearing the reputational loss of being fooled.  Magdo added that Caspersen used much of the scam proceeds to pay the mortgage and two home equity credit lines on a Manhattan apartment, as well as a $3 million home in Bronxville, a wealthy suburb of New York City....

Shechtman submitted dozens of support letters to the court, including pleas for leniency from Caspersen's wife, friends, and even the doorman of his Manhattan co-op. The defense also turned to scientific and financial trading experts.  Dr. Marc Potenza, a Yale University School of Medicine psychiatry professor and mental health expert on addiction, examined Caspersen and reviewed his health records in preparation for testifying at the sentencing hearing. "Mr. Caspersen suffered from a severe gambling disorder, a mental illness, and there is little doubt that it contributed substantially to him losing his own money and seek money by fraud from others to continue on the same destructive path," Potenza wrote in a letter to the court....

Citing the experts' conclusions, Shechtman urged Rakoff to weigh the "tragic dimension" of Caspersen's gambling addiction.... Caspersen fought back tears as he addressed the court before being sentenced. "I have committed serious crimes of fraud, and have no one to blame but myself," he said. "I stand before you asking for mercy."...

After more than an hour of testimony and questioning of Potenza, Rakoff said he deemed it "more likely than not" that gambling addiction existed and could be a mitigating factor. Still, he stressed it must be weighed with other factors in the case. "It was a substantial fraud," said the judge. "It was a fraud that involved the deception of people who had a lot of faith in the defendant."

Ultimately, Rakoff sentenced Caspersen to four years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and nearly $28 million in restitution. "No purpose would be served by having him rot in prison for years on end," said the judge. He characterized federal sentencing guidelines that would allow the far longer sentence sought by prosecutors as "absurd." And, referring to the likelihood that some might question the leniency, Rakoff said outsiders didn't know all the facts of the case.

I cannot find any indication that Judge Rakoff has or plans to write up his sentencing conclusions in a formal opinion, but I sincerely hope he does.  For consistent and cogent sentencing even after Booker made the guidelines advisory, it is critical in my view not only for federal district judges to consider thoughtfully all the 18 USC 3553(a) sentencing factors, but also for them to produce written opinions to explain how they weighed those factors in high-profile cases in which they significantly deviate from the ranges suggested by the guidelines.

November 6, 2016 at 11:13 AM | Permalink

Comments

The fact that we consider four years in prison to be a lenient sentences just shows how crazy-high criminal sentences have been ratcheted up. Four years is a long time to be in prison. It's the length of time people spend in high school and at most colleges (although it maybe more for undergrads at Professor Berman's Ohio State). Some parents could leave an elementary school kid behind and return to a high school kid.

Think about what happened to you in the last four years. And then think about what it would have been like to have missed all that while in a cage for the whole time.

Four years in prison is a long time. Four years in prison is real punishment. In any rational sentencing scheme, four years in prison is not a slap on the wrist.

Posted by: Stephen Hardwick | Nov 7, 2016 7:27:42 AM

And yet my first-time offender white collar spouse received TWENTY FIVE YEARS! in Federal prison. He did not plead guilty. He went to trial...and the trial penalty seems to mandate that your sentence be extra harsh. My spouse was never even arrested, he was considered such a low threat to public safety. After trial, he was even without probation for many months...and was ordered to self surrender, yet his judge, apparently in a fit of pique, decided to make taxpayers foot the bill for DECADES. (yes, once you get over One decade, decadeS is an appropriate term)

You mention four years is long...picture a Quarter of a Century...because some people lost some money.

Posted by: folly | Nov 7, 2016 2:17:54 PM

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