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National Crime Victim Law Institute

United States v. Ebbers, No. (S4) 02-CR-1144-3 (VEC), 2020 WL 91399 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 8, 2020)

January 30, 2020

Defendant, former CEO of WorldCom, Inc., was convicted of multiple counts of securities fraud and conspiracy to deceive the investing public and the SEC concerning WorldCom’s true operating performance and financial results. Because of his crimes, WorldCom employees lost their jobs and savings, and investors and shareholders lost hundreds of millions—estimated at perhaps even billions—of dollars. After serving 13 years out of his 25-year sentence, defendant moved for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), as amended by the First Step Act of 2018. The court explained that this provision empowers a court to reduce a defendant’s term of imprisonment if it finds that “extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction.” The court began by noting that before ruling on defendant’s motion, it sua sponte ordered the government to provide the victims with notice of the proceedings so that they could be heard. The court explained that it did so despite the fact that it interpreted the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3771, to mandate “victim notification of compassionate release proceedings [only in cases where] the proceedings will include a public hearing in open court” and it intended to rule on the papers without a public hearing. The court provided two reasons for its decision to notify victims even in the absence of a public hearing: First, “[s]entencing courts have long enjoyed discretion in the sort of information they may consider when setting an appropriate sentence.” Second, “the broad rights-based language of the CVRA counsels in favor of giving victims notice and an opportunity to be heard, regardless of whether there will be a hearing in open court[,]” as “[m]ost of the rights conferred by the Act are aimed at ensuring that victims have dignity and ‘voice’ in criminal proceedings, and do not provide specific procedures for their implementation.” The court further concluded that “[f]or the same reason that it is appropriate to hear from victims who wish to be heard before a judge initially imposes sentence, it is equally appropriate to give victims an opportunity to be heard again before the sentence that was initially imposed is modified.” The court noted that it received numerous letters from victims describing the impacts of defendant’s crimes; some “urg[ing] this Court to keep Ebbers in prison until he dies; others plead[ing] for compassion for him and his family.” In deciding defendant’s motion, the court considered the victims’ input, along with a number of factors, including the length of the prison term defendant had served, as well as evidence showing, among other things, that defendant “is sick, weak, disoriented, and bedridden” and that he can no longer care for himself, his cognitive functions are impaired, and his body is wasting away. For these reasons, the court concluded that defendant had met his burden of showing “extraordinary and compelling reasons” warranting the reduction of sentence and granted his motion for compassionate release.