Bernard Madoff: 'I will turn and face you'

In the courtoom, victims get a chance to tell their painful stories but just one moment to stare down the schemer.

By Nicholas Varchaver, senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- There was undeniable drama inside the ceremonial courtroom on the ninth floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan this morning. Cheers and applause burst out when federal district judge Denny Chin sentenced Bernard Madoff to 150 years in prison for the massive Ponzi Scheme he had committed.

Nine victims -- most with a catch in their throat, some needing to stop to compose themselves -- described how their lives were wrecked by his fraud. Many felt compelled to explain that they had never been wealthy to begin with, and even Judge Chin took pains to note that, among the victims who had contacted him were an auto mechanic, a retired forest worker, and a retired school secretary.

Some of their accounts were harrowing, and you could hear sniffles in the audience. Since being wiped out, Miriam Siegman told the courtroom, "I live on food stamps. At the end of the month, I sometimes scavenge in dumpsters." She went on to explain that she occasionally has to forgo her heart medication and has been reduced to washing her laundry in the kitchen sink and gathering discarded cans to redeem at five cents each.

Other victims vented their rage. After requesting the maximum sentence, victim Tom FitzMaurice read comments from his wife, Marcia, that would seem to cut deeply for a family-oriented person such as Madoff: "You have two sons who despise you...You have left your children a legacy of shame."

And yet for all the emotion in the courtroom this morning, the sense of confrontation between victim and criminal was somehow undercut -- in large part by the layout of the courtroom, which helped deflate the drama. The victims spoke at a microphone set up in front of the spectators' area. Madoff sat at the defense table perhaps 20 feet directly ahead of them. The result was that the nine victims spoke to the back of their tormentor's head.

When Madoff spoke he also faced the judge, away from the audience. His tone seemed to suggest he didn't expect anybody to credit his words: "Nothing I say can correct the things I've done."

For seven minutes, clearing his throat repeatedly, Madoff read from a prepared text. He told how he had lied and misled his brother, his sons, his wife, his employees, and his investors. As he had at his guilty plea in March, he confessed his hubris in describing how his investment business became a fraud: "I couldn't accept the fact that, for once in my life, I failed."

Most striking, he spoke about his wife and family, noting that he had "left a legacy of my family and my grandchildren." He told the audience that "my wife cries herself to sleep every night." He discussed the view that he and his wife, Ruth, had appeared callous by not expressing their regrets to the victims and explained that she had been advised not to speak about the case until after his sentencing.

"Today, she will make a statement," Madoff continued. (Right after the hearing, Ruth Madoff released a statement, via her lawyer, that read in part: "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. In the end, to say that I feel devastated for the many whom my husband has destroyed is truly inadequate. Nothing I can say seems sufficient regarding the daily suffering that all those innocent people are enduring because of my husband. But if it matters to them at all, please know that not a day goes by when I don't ache over the stories that I have heard and read.")

Finally, Madoff acknowledged the people sitting behind him. "I apologize to my victims. I will turn and face you," Madoff said, seeming to deploy every ounce of his willpower to twist his torso and face the victims. It felt as if it lasted no more than a second, and Madoff sounded as if he were reading from a stage direction. "I'm sorry. I know that doesn't help you." Then he sat down.

When judge Chin spoke, his matter-of-fact tone lacked drama, but the words were strong. "The message must be sent that Mr. Madoff's crimes were extraordinarily evil," he said, noting that they took a "staggering human toll." Chin described the need for "retribution," and emphasized that "symbolism is important." He pointedly rebuffed a contention made by Madoff's lawyer, Ira Sorkin, that "the unified tone of the victim statements suggests a desire for a type of mob vengeance..." As Chin put it, "I do not agree that the victims are succumbing to the temptation of mob vengeance." Just the opposite, he said -- they'd put their faith in the justice system.

Moments later, Chin re-affirmed that faith. To top of page

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