Although Bernard Madoff said he was deeply ashamed of his actions after pleading guilty yesterday to 11 counts of fraud, perjury, money laundering and fraud, his conduct between his arrest for running a giant Ponzi scheme and his sentencing suggested not even a millisecond of remorse.
Madoff took to strolling the streets of his posh Upper East Side neighborhood after being released on bail last December. He's managed to get $62 million into his family's clutches since then. I'm not sure what Madoff's days in a federal minimum security prison will be like, but I'm betting they'll be far closer to "Goodfellas" than "Midnight Express."
However, there is probably a better movie for Madoff's prison experience to emulate: "Dead Man Walking."
Bill Maher suggested a few weeks ago, tongue somewhat in cheek, that a couple of the wizards of Wall Street who got us into this current economic mess need to be left dangling over the rafters of the New York Stock Exchange as a message. My response is a little more tempered: Madoff should merely face the prospect of capital punishment.
No doubt readers are shaking their heads at my immodest proposal. Madoff hasn't killed anyone. Why should we consider executing him? Since he's 70 years old, the chances he would die in prison are excellent. But is that good enough?
There's no mathematical algorithim for comparing the hurt of families of murder victims and those who are victims of other crimes, but given the scale of Madoff's malfeasance, I'm certain they're closer than they appear. The thousands of people Madoff ripped off are suffering immensely. Ninety-year-old Ian Thiermann had to find a job to make ends meet. Elie Wiesel's foundation was left bereft. Thiermann's plight is sad enough, but there may not be a person on the planet more entitled to die in peace than Wiesel. Madoff shamelessly took that away.
Which comes back to my sounding like a bloodthirsty lunatic. I don't believe someone like Madoff should be strapped onto a gurney and a needle full of poison jabbed into his arm for revenge. This act would actually serve a far more constructive purpose than does our current system of capital punishment.
I'm not passionate about the death penalty, but I believe it serves a purpose: the exercising of vengeance against the worst of the worst. However, I've always been troubled by the mostly fallacious argument used to make capital punishment more palatable: its deterrent effect. Criminals who commit the types of murders that result in their execution are almost all sociopaths. They lack impulse control and an ability to plan ahead. So when a criminal is executed, it is always for purposes of punishment and societal revenge. Barack Obama took this concept quite far, stunning some quarters during his Presidential campaign when he supported execution for child rapists. I'm mostly unwilling to go so far as to kill someone who hasn't killed. Or am I?
If there's a candidate for a non-murderer to be executed for deterrent effect, Madoff is it. He is not the thug who robs a liquor store and avenges his powerlessness by shooting the clerk, or the creep who takes advantage of his girlfriend's kids when she's at work. He spent 30 years running a fairly legitimate investment business and served as Nasdaq's first chairman before he decided to turn to fraud in the early 1990s. He worked hard enough and long enough to gain the trust of thousands of people that he then felt entitled to spurn. There are a lot of people out there who aspire to be the next Madoff, and are willing to plot and work their asses off to do so. The chance they might be executed if they go too far might actually give them some pause.
And if Madoff were actually facing the death penalty, his sentence would almost certainly never be carried out. Even the most impoverished defendants receive legal representation; if not, their cases are delayed. Unless you're facing capital punishment in Texas (which has already executed a dozen convicts so far in 2009), it takes 20 years or more for a defendant to move from conviction to execution. But in this instance it would be a symbolic action that actually represents more than just symbolism.
Madoff might not survive such a process, but the debate about his fate certainly would. And if it stuck in the mind of the next Master of the Universe who placed his sense of entitlement above the duty owed his clients and business, everyone would benefit.