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Christie Blatchford

Madoff's no murderer Add to ...

It was shortly before noon that the steam began leaking out of me.

Until I got word on my trusty BlackBerry of Bernie Madoff's sentence, I had a pretty good head of it going.

I was in Superior Court at Toronto's main courthouse, covering the windup to the so-called "Pathfinder" case, the trial of three young men accused of first-degree murder in a drive-by shooting (allegedly, in a Nissan Pathfinder) that left one good, decent, law-abiding man dead and another one bleeding from nine bullets.

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Pleading not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Brenton Charlton, the attempted murder of Leonard Bell and an associated criminal organization charge are Tyshan Riley, Philip Atkins and Jason Wisdom.

As lawyer David Midanik, who represents Mr. Riley, said Monday in a meandering sashay of a closing address, murder is "the most serious crime in the Criminal Code."

(Now Mr. Midanik mentioned this while making the point that the jury shouldn't lightly convict someone of the worst crime on the books, least of all on the evidence of two discreditable prosecution witnesses. But he was nonetheless correct.)

That, in fact, was why I was there, that, and because at its heart, the case is about gangsterism - the accused three are alleged to have been members of a Scarborough street gang called G-Way, in particular a vicious little subset of it called the Throwbacks, whose modus operandi was to drive into enemy territory and gun down anyone who looked like a gangbanger or looked at them the wrong way.

If any of the young lads - they are all in their 20s - were to be convicted, he would face what is for first-degree the automatic life sentence, or what passes for it in Canada, by which I mean he would have to spend 25 long years in jail before even being eligible to apply for parole, except at the 15-year mark, when he could try for earlier consideration under the so-called "faint hope" clause.

It all seemed, if not a stern, then stern-ish, business. Then I heard about Mr. Madoff's sentence.

I grant you, he ran the mother of all Ponzi schemes ($65-billion was the fraud perpetrated on investors' statements, $13-billion is what the trustee figures Mr. Madoff cost about 1,350 of them) and he badly betrayed thousands who believed in him, or as a Financial Times editorial put it rather more phlegmatically, who were "seduced by his air of exclusivity" and "failed to look behind the smoke and mirrors."

Clearly, Mr. Madoff is a greedy, amoral fellow, if not quite the monster one of his betrayed investors described: "He walks among us. He dresses like us … but underneath the façade is a true beast."

But were his crimes really, as Judge Denny Chin said Monday, "extraordinarily evil," with "a staggering human toll"? The judge thought so, and gave Mr. Madoff a sentence of 150 years - 150 years!!! - behind bars, or six times the minimum time most first-degree killers serve in this country.

"I only hope that his jail sentence is long enough so that his prison becomes a coffin," another bitter investor, Michael Schwartz, told the judge during the victim-impact hearing before the sentencing.

No worries there, Mr. Schwartz.

Mr. Madoff is 71. Unless he lives to the age of 221, in which case he will not go down in history as a shamed shaman but rather as the great white hope of those Boomers who want to live forever, his prison will become his coffin and sooner rather than later.

Mr. Madoff is but the latest white-collar criminal to receive a harsh sentence in the United States, although his renders the others trifling by comparison. Bernie Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, got a mere 25 years in the hoosegow; Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron boss, got 24 years, and Canada's own Conrad Black, although acquitted of nine charges, including one of racketeering, and although his investors actually made money, was sentenced to 61/2 years for fraud and obstructing justice. (The U.S. Supreme Court recently has agreed to hear a challenge to Mr. Black's 2007 conviction.)

There is something to admire about the U.S. justice system, but what I really like about it is its speed.

Mr. Madoff was charged in December of last year, pleaded guilty to securities fraud and other charges this March, and yesterday was sentenced. It all unfolded in little more than six months. Absent a plea, in Canada Mr. Madoff would be years away still from his day of judgment.

The case I was covering Monday, for instance, got to trial only last month, more than five years after Mr. Charlton was killed and Mr. Bell seriously injured. I have actually written about a case in which two men, co-accused of the same offences in the same crime, were tried separately, one in Michigan, one in Ontario. The guy in the States had been convicted and served his not insubstantial sentence before the Canadian ever got to trial.

I am unconvinced that the slower justice Canadians receive is better; unconvinced that white-collar crime is worthy of more grievous punishment than violent criminal offences (most particularly murder); unconvinced that those who were swindled by Mr. Madoff ought to be seen purely as victims, although they are universally being described that way.

I don't make light of what Mr. Madoff did. He was the perfect product of a culture of greed and opacity, where everyone wanted better-than-average returns and hardly anyone thought to question them.

I was oddly reminded of a moment at the long-ago Gomery inquiry, where a young lawyer, mother and Liberal Party "volunteer" was called to the stand to testify that when, after the election she'd worked on, a mysterious cheque arrived in the mail from a company she'd never heard of, she cashed it anyway without asking a single question. That's entitlement, and it's the common thread that joins her, Bernie Madoff and many of his investors.

I know he ruined some lives and reduced others to poverty and struggle, although in this I again defer to the excellent little Financial Times editorial, which concluded that while regulators and governments are scrambling all over themselves to prevent a recurrence, "It might be more effective to foster a revival of old-fashioned common feeling and basic common sense."

In that society, murder would be the worst crime, and deserving of the harshest punishment, and we'd all keep our money under the bed, with no expectation that it would mysteriously double overnight.

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