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February 5, 2020

Terminally ill, Bernie Madoff is latest high-profile fraudster to seek compassionate release from federal prison thanks to FIRST STEP Act

As reported here a few months ago, former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers secured compassionate release from federal prison thanks largely to a provision of the FIRST STEP Act and to a federal judge believing his claim that he was extremely ill.  Though federal prosecutors questioned just how ill Ebbers really was (as noted here), the judge was proven right in this case: Ebbers passed away this past weekend.

Now, as reported here in a lengthy Washington Post piece, another notable high-profile fraudster is seeking compassionate release: "Ponzi scheme king Bernie Madoff, who bilked investors out of billions, seeks medical release from prison."  Here are the details:

The man convicted of the greatest Ponzi scheme in modern American history, guilty of bilking thousands of investors in 49 states and more than 120 countries, is asking a judge to release him from a life sentence so he can die outside prison walls.  Bernie Madoff said he is in the end stages of kidney disease, must use a wheelchair and is in need of round-the-clock help.  At 81, he is too old for a transplant, and he has been moved to palliative care within the Federal Medical Center prison in Butner, N.C.  He is asking for compassionate release so he can die at home.

In phone interviews with The Washington Post, Madoff expressed remorse for his massive fraud, in which he swindled investors out of billions, and said his dying wish is to salvage relationships with his grandchildren.  He has served 11 years of the 150-year sentence he was given in 2009, after pleading guilty to 11 criminal counts, including fraud and money laundering.  “I’m terminally ill,” Madoff said.  “There’s no cure for my type of disease. So, you know, I’ve served. I’ve served 11 years already, and, quite frankly, I’ve suffered through it.”

Relatively few inmates seeking compassionate release have had their petitions approved by the Federal Bureau of Prisons since the federal program was created in 1984.  But a bipartisan criminal justice reform law passed in late 2018 gave prisoners the right to appeal denials to a federal judge, and that is what Madoff is attempting.  His attorney filed a motion late Wednesday in the Southern District of New York.

Madoff’s request will test the justice system’s capacity for compassion weighed against his unprecedented crimes.  His scheme ruined scores of lives, stole the financial futures of thousands and sent many retirees back to work after wiping out their nest eggs.   At least four people connected to Madoff have died by suicide, including his son, Mark, who hanged himself on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. Madoff’s remaining child, Andrew, died of cancer in 2014.

Others continue to suffer. Gregg Felsen’s savings were wiped out. Now 72, Felsen works as a wedding and event photographer in Palm Springs, Calif., to make a living. He said that he will never be able to retire and that Madoff doesn’t deserve to be granted a compassionate release.   “I never got a break; why should he get a break? He’s terminally ill? I’m terminally broke,” said Felsen, who said he did not receive restitution.  “He ruined a lot of people’s lives and changed them forever. He deserves no leniency whatsoever.”

The Bureau of Prisons acknowledges that Madoff has about 18 months to live, according to his medical records.  A prison doctor diagnosed him with end-stage renal disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and hyperparathyroidism, among other ailments.  The Bureau of Prisons said he fits the criteria for compassionate release but rejected his application in December.“His condition is considered terminal with a life expectancy of less than 18 months,” Ken Hyle, general counsel for the Bureau of Prisons, wrote in the rejection letter.  “However, Mr. Madoff is accountable of a loss to investors of over $13 billion.  Accordingly, in light of the nature and circumstances of his offense, his release at this time would minimize the severity of his offense.”...

Madoff said he is on dialysis and takes about 10 medications a day, including amlodipine and diltiazem for high blood pressure, atorvastatin (Lipitor) for high cholesterol, and calcitriol (a man-made form of vitamin D).   He said he has been given a back brace, bed wedge, medical shoes and a lower bunk.  He said that he has pain and cramping in his thighs, hips and knees and that he rarely sleeps more than an hour at a time, often waking from leg cramps.  Prison records indicate that Madoff is Care Level 4, defined as “functioning may be so severely impaired as to require 24-hour skilled nursing care or nursing assistance.”...

Considered the most significant prison rehabilitation law in more than a decade, the First Step Act was highlighted by President Trump in his State of the Union address Tuesday.  But the law has also been criticized by some conservatives who say its leniency was misguided and opened the door for notorious criminals such as Madoff to be released.  At least 124 people were granted compassionate release in 2019, the first full year of the First Step Act, according to the Justice Department, compared with 34 in all of 2018.

Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, worked with lawmakers drafting the First Step Act and said society gains nothing by letting people who are losing their physical and mental faculties languish in prison.  With their bodies and minds failing, he said, prison walls become redundant.  “For some, it’s never enough, but none of what he suffers is going to get a dime back to what he swindled or cheated,” Nolan said. “And, again, I don’t minimize at all [what Madoff has done]. But it’s the hallmark of a society to not punish somebody beyond reasonableness.”

Madoff’s attorney, Brandon Sample, said there shouldn’t be a compassionate release program if all prisoners, including Madoff, aren’t eligible.  “What does it say about us as a society? Are we going to be so insistent that it doesn’t matter, let them suffer there in prison? If that’s the case, why do we need compassionate release?” he asked.  “I don’t dispute that his conduct, his offense behavior impacted many, many people’s lives and caused harm.  There’s no dispute. But the question now is, with his present situation, what would that hypothetical jury do today faced with the Bernie Madoff who’s in a wheelchair, who’s on his last legs of life?”

In light of the extraordinary crimes of Bernie Madoff and their extraordinary consequences, I actually think a hypothetical jury might well demand that Madoff spend the rest of his dwindling day behind bars.  But, under federal law, this issue is not one for a jury to decide.  Rather, specifically pursuant to 18 USC 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), a federal judge will have to decide, "after considering the factors set forth in section 3553(a)," if she finds "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant"  a sentence reduction for Madoff.  (Ivory tower aside: arguably a federal judge might have power to impanel an advisory jury to assist with making this judgment, but only a crazy Apprendi-addled academic like me could ever even imagine such a move.)

Notably, the judge who originally sentenced Madoff to the maximum available term of 150 years, Judge Denny Chin, is no longer a District Judge after his elevation to the Second Circuit by Prez Obama.  Consequently, some other District Judge in the Southern District of New York will resolve Madoff's motion.  I am inclined to predict that a judge may be inclined to embrace the BOP's view that "in light of the nature and circumstances of his offense, [Madoff's] release at this time would minimize the severity of his offense."  But this one will be interesting to watch.

UPDATE: Here is a copy of the motion that was filled in this matter.

February 5, 2020 at 06:32 PM | Permalink


Doug, you are of course correct about the jury issue. This comment was part of a larger discussion concerning sentencing and how states permit jury sentencing. That led into the hypothetical about what would a federal sentencing jury do today with the sick and dying Madoff if jury sentencing was in the federal system.

Posted by: Brandon Sample | Feb 6, 2020 10:16:50 AM

Thanks for writing, Brandon, and I did not mean to be snarky with my comment here or imply that you did not know the applicable law. Actually, I was grateful for your comment as it got me to thinking about the possibility of juries weighing in on compassionate release efforts.

Thanks for reading and good luck with your motion.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 6, 2020 3:38:00 PM

Just my two cents, I see Madoff's offense as fundamentally worse than Ebbers'. Madoff's fund was crooked from the start. Ebbers found himself in a situation where he was losing a lot of money and cooked the books to hide it. Both criminal, but Madoff is worse because nothing was pushing him to do what he did. Therefore, it would be reasonable to give release to Ebbers but not to Madoff.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Feb 7, 2020 7:29:02 AM

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