A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the early release from prison of former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers — mastermind of one of the biggest accounting frauds in history — citing his increasingly dire medical condition.
Ebbers, 78, has so far served about 13 years of his 25-year prison sentence for orchestrating the $11 billion accounting fraud by defunct telecommunications company WorldCom.
He had been scheduled to be freed in 2028 before Wednesday's ruling by Judge Valerie Caproni at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
Ebbers, who has been held in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, was not in the courtroom during the hearing.
But his family was, and they wept when Caproni said he would be set free and allowed to live with them in Mississippi.
Ebbers, who is legally blind, has suffered from dementia, dramatic weight loss and other ailments while in prison, his family and lawyers have said.
Ebbers' attorney, Graham Carner, told Caproni that Ebbers has been hospitalized three times in the past three weeks, and was admitted to a hospital again on the same day as the court hearing.
The lawyer argued that Ebbers had served what effectively was a life sentence when he was convicted after trial in 2005.
"His quality of life is gone," Carner said. "He is, for all intents and purposes, dead."
The lawyer noted that Barbara Jones, the now-retired federal judge who imposed Ebbers' prison sentence, had written Caproni in support of his early release, saying Ebbers "has been punished enough."
But prosecutors from the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office, who in a court filing last month suggested Ebbers was faking his mental decline, argued Wednesday that cutting his prison term nearly in half would send the wrong message to the public.
Assistant United States Attorney Jason Cowley said that Carner's characterization of Ebbers' offenses as nonviolent and merely securities fraud threatened to minimize a crime that caused "billions of dollars in losses to millions of victims."
Caproni admitted she was concerned that Ebbers was "trying to manipulate me" in terms of his purported symptoms of dementia.
But she said she was more concerned with his physical symptoms, including his steep weight loss.
Ebbers, who is more than 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds earlier this year, weighed 147 pounds as of last week according to prison medical records
"He appears to be wasting away," the judge said.
Caproni said she had received "lots of letters" from victims of the WorldCom fraud who urged her to let him die in prison.
"Many have never bounced back," she said of those people.
"But keeping him in jail won't give them their money back."
A spokesman for federal prosecutors declined to comment on Caproni's ruling. It is not clear when Ebbers will be released.