Many Mississippians, upon learning that a federal judge, citing health reasons, ordered the prison release of former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers, probably had a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of, “Why does this ripoff artist deserve such a break?”

After all, Ebbers and his fellow WorldCom executives were responsible for one of the biggest accounting scams in American business history — an estimated $11 billion worth of fraud to make the company look more profitable than it really was.

That took some doing, but the worst part was that plenty of Mississippians who believed in a home-state success story were shareholders in the publicly traded company. Their misplaced faith cost them a lot of money when the company went bankrupt in 2002.

A jury convicted Ebbers of securities fraud in 2005. He wound up with a well-deserved 25-year sentence and had been behind bars since September 2006. The judge said she received letters from some people who never recovered from their WorldCom investment losses, telling her that Ebbers should die in prison.

It’s hard to fault people for feeling that way. But it turns out that there are valid reasons for the judge’s decision to let him go.

The judge, based in New York City, agreed with Ebbers’ attorney that his health is in steep decline. He has heart disease and severe vision problems, and his weight has fallen from above 200 pounds to 147.

The attorney also said Ebbers may have urinary sepsis, which is a potentially fatal condition. It prompted doctors to move him from a prison hospital to a private facility.

An assistant U.S. attorney agreed Ebbers is not well, but said releasing him after serving only a little more than half of his sentence would send a bad message about the rule of law.

Ebbers is now 78, and if the reports are accurate, his quality of life has diminished greatly. Even the judge who sentenced him said she believes justice has been served.

He could have been left to die in prison. But it speaks well of the justice system when it takes all factors into account and chooses mercy over rigidity or meanness. It was easy to throw the book at Bernie Ebbers, but it’s harder to stay mad at a frail, dying elderly man. He is in a different kind of prison now.

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