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Lawyers for high-profile inmates such as Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernie Madoff and attorneys Michael Avenatti and Michael Cohen are now arguing they should be released from custody because of the coronavirus.
The requests are coming amid fears that COVID-19 will soon sweep through America’s correctional facilities, where prisoners are tightly packed in.
“This health crisis may further accelerate his death,” Brandon Sample, who is representing the 81-year-old Madoff, told the New York Daily News. “I think this serves as potentially another additional reason why continuing to keep him in confinement is not in his interest nor in the public’s best interests.”
Madoff, who is being held at a facility in North Carolina after being sentenced to 150 years for bilking thousands of investors in a $17.5 billion Ponzi scheme, had just asked last month to be released early in light of his terminal kidney disease.
Michael Avenatti, the once high-flying lawyer who was recently convicted of trying to extort Nike, asked a judge Wednesday to release him to home confinement. A court motion said Avenatti was particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus in part because his cellmate in New York City’s Metropolitan Correctional Center was removed from his cell due to flu-like symptoms.
“He is part of the general population incarcerated under unsanitary and disease-prone conditions,” attorney H. Dean Steward wrote in the court filing. “He also had pneumonia six months ago.”
President Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, who is being held at a facility 90 miles outside of the Big Apple, should be moved because the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is “demonstrably incapable of safeguarding and treating BOP inmates who are obliged to live in close quarters and are at enhanced risk of catching coronavirus,” his attorney, Roger Adler, told the New York Daily News.
Cohen -- who once famously claimed he was willing to "take a bullet" for Trump before later turning against his boss, including during nationally televised congressional testimony -- pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations, tax evasion and lying to Congress about Trump’s past business dealings in Russia.
And octogenarian mobster Vincent Asaro, who is serving eight years for arson after being acquitted in the 1978 Lufthansa heist – which was featured in the film “Goodfellas” -- is also among those seeking to be released. He currently is being held at a detention center in Brooklyn.
“We’re just going to go ahead and file for compassionate release because he’s at super high risk for COVID-19,” Asaro’s lawyer, Deirdre Von Dornum, said to the New York Daily News.
The BOP, which is trying to get ahead of a potential coronavirus outbreak in the prison system, already has suspended visitation for all federal inmates, facility transfers, staff travel and training for 30 days. Newly arriving inmates are being screened for the illness, and even asymptomatic inmates deemed to be at risk are being quarantined.
As of Wednesday, two federal Bureau of Prisons staff members have tested positive for coronavirus, a person familiar with the matter told the AP. One of the staffers works in a correctional facility in Berlin, New Hampshire, and the other works in an office in Grand Prairie, Texas, but there were still no confirmed cases among any of the 175,000 inmates in the BOP system, the person said.
The person, who wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity, would not say how many inmates, if any, have been tested for coronavirus.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday that over the next 48 hours the city will identify any inmates held on minor charges it thinks should be released because of their health. He said it's a balance of "public safety with the very real concern about health in the jails."
New York City's Board of Correction this week called for the immediate release of all high-risk inmates after an investigator assigned to the jail system died over the weekend of the coronavirus. The 56-year-old man was said to have a pre-existing health condition and only limited contact with inmates. The city's jail system has about 8,000 inmates, most at notorious Rikers Island.
Fox News’ Alex Pappas and the Associated Press contributed to this report.