Victims of Bernard L. Madoff broke out in cheers and applause on Monday as Southern District of New York Judge Denny Chin ordered a 150-year prison sentence for Madoff's gigantic Ponzi scheme.
"Symbolism is important," Chin said as he hit Madoff with the maximum possible term -- by far the largest ever for a white-collar crime in the Southern District of New York, imposed for offenses the judge called "staggering" in size and scope.
"Here, the message must be sent that Madoff's crimes were extraordinarily evil," the judge said. "This is not a bloodless financial crime that occurred only on paper, but one that took a staggering human toll."
The sentence was ordered after the judge heard 50 minutes of tearful testimony from nine heartbroken victims of a fraud in excess of $13 billion in investor losses to date. Madoff, 71, reportedly admitted the fraud was in excess of $50 billion when he confessed to his sons and prepared for his arrest on Dec. 11.
"He truly has earned the reputation as being the most despised person living in America today," said Burt Ross, who lost $5 million through the fraud run out of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities on Lexington Avenue in New York City, where for over a decade Madoff did not even bother to invest the money his clients sent him. Ross broke down in tears as he described the damage Madoff had done.
Sheryl Weinstein said she met Madoff 21 years ago when she was the chief financial officer of Hadassah. In December, Weinstein learned that she and her husband had "lost everything" and have been forced to sell their home.
"Underneath the facade, he is truly a beast," Weinstein said. "He has fed upon us to satisfy his own needs."
Madoff pleaded guilty to securities fraud and 10 other felonies on March 12. Madoff was not technically eligible for a life sentence on Monday, but Chin said he had the discretion to "stack" the sentences for each crime committed and have the terms run consecutively.
Once the victims had spoken, Madoff rose, cleared his throat, took a sip of water and said, "I cannot offer an excuse for my behavior. How can you excuse betraying thousands of investors who entrusted you with their life savings?"
He spoke of betraying his 200 employees at his proprietary trading business and betraying his brother and his two sons. He then asked how anyone could excuse the betrayal of Ruth Madoff, "the wife who stood by you for 50 years and still stands by you?"
"I live in a tormented state now knowing all the suffering or pain I created," he said.
Yet Madoff could not quite bring himself to squarely confront his crimes, even as he made a point of saying, "I apologize to my victims. I turn and face you. I am sorry. I know that doesn't help."
The gesture was quick and mechanical. Madoff then continued to speak, choosing language that minimized his actions.
He spoke of starting "this problem" then added, "this crime." He referred to how much it hurt an "industry I worked to improve," and said he dug a hole and kept digging because "I could not accept that for once in my life I had failed."
He also referred to his "terrible mistake" and his "error in judgment."