Published December 21, 2009
NEW YORK – The 85-year-old son of philanthropist Brooke Astor was sentenced Monday to as many as three years in prison for exploiting her mental frailty to plunder her millions, but the legal saga surrounding the society doyenne's fortune will persist with planned appeals.
Anthony Marshall showed little emotion as state Supreme Court Justice A. Kirke Bartley sentenced him to one to three years in prison — the minimum term his conviction required — for looting the fortune of his mother, who gave away nearly $200 million to institutions and charities before she died at age 105 in 2007.
Marshall will remain free for at least the next month as his defense lawyers try to persuade an appeals court to let Marshall remain free on bail while his planned appeal plays out.
The judge noted Marshall's World War II service and the possibility that the late Astor herself would have been aghast to see her son imprisoned, but he added that the law left him no choice but to impose a prison term.
"It is a paradox to me that such abundance has led to such incredible sadness," Bartley said. He gave Marshall until Jan. 19 to provide his medical information to prison officials and otherwise prepare for life behind bars.
Marshall declined to speak at his sentencing, where prosecutors described him as an unrepentant thief who deserved punishment, while his lawyers strove to portray him as a dutiful son and patriot who believed his mother wanted him to have the money and items he was convicted of stealing.
Before leaving court, the stooped, unsteady Marshall sat for a minute on a bench in the courtroom audience, his tearful wife's arm around his shoulders. He nearly stumbled over a pile of snow as he and his wife, Charlene, walked to a waiting car.
Co-defendant Francis X. Morrissey Jr., 67, an estates lawyer convicted of helping Marshall steal his mother's money, was due to be sentenced later Monday. His conviction doesn't require prison time, but he could get as many as seven years behind bars.
Marshall faced as many as 25 years in prison after being convicted of 14 counts, including grand larceny and scheming to defraud, for looting his mother's nearly $200 million fortune. She was suffering from Alzheimer's disease when she died.
In the final year of her life, the nasty family feud over her care was splashed all over the city's tabloids — including allegations that she was forced to sleep in a torn nightgown on a couch that smelled of urine while subsisting on a diet of pureed peas and oatmeal. Those allegations were never substantiated.
Defense lawyers have said Marshall's myriad illnesses would make any prison term a virtual death sentence. They tried unsuccessfully to persuade the judge to throw out the one count in his conviction that required prison time.
Marshall's Oct. 8 conviction followed a five-month trial in which Manhattan prosecutors painted him as an impatient heir who schemed to get his hands on his disoriented mother's money, though she had already provided for him generously.
Prosecutors, who brought in such prominent Astor friends as Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger to help make their case, say Marshall manipulated Astor into changing her will and even helped himself to artwork from her walls, largely to provide for a Lady MacBeth-like wife his mother despised.
"The defendant's economic and social standing shouldn't put him above the herd," Assistant District Attorney Joel Seidemann said. "He shouldn't be treated as anything other than a common thief."
Defense lawyers say Marshall had the legal power to give himself gifts with his mother's money, and she was lucid when she changed her will to benefit her only child. He consulted with attorneys throughout, they noted.
"I think the fairest way to think about it is that there is a man who, maybe, felt entitled — and in hindsight felt too entitled — but he's not somebody who simply stuck his hand in the cookie jar when no one was looking," defense lawyer John R. Cuti said as he argued for leniency for Marshall.
Marshall didn't testify or call any witnesses at his trial. After his conviction, he aired details of his life — from childhood sorrows to his current health problems — and lined up some celebrity supporters of his own in a bid to stay free.
Al Roker, a fellow parishioner at Marshall's church, praised the decorated World War II veteran as a "good son, father and patriot." Neighbor Whoopi Goldberg told the judge in a letter that jailing him "would only amount to an unnecessary cruelty that would serve no real purpose."
Prosecutors dismissed the letters as belated and irrelevant.
"When you steal millions from your mother, it isn't enough to say you're nice to Whoopi Goldberg," Seidemann said.
Under Marshall's sentence, he generally would have to serve at least a year in prison before being eligible for parole. But he might be able to request parole earlier for medical reasons.
Meanwhile, a fight over Astor's estate continues in civil court, pitting Marshall against several charities. It was on hold during the criminal case.
Citing the will fight, Bartley turned down prosecutors' request to force Marshall to pay more than $12 million as restitution.
Astor was seen as the queen of New York society and a power in the city's philanthropic scene, supporting such grand institutions as Carnegie Hall and such humble needs as a new boiler for a youth center. Her efforts won her a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1998.