The former president will likely appeal the decision in what local media have dubbed the trial of the century.
Mr. Chen received additional sentences for money-laundering and taking bribes, and a $6 million fine. He's expected to appeal the district court's decision.
Chen's wife, former first lady Wu Shu-jen, also got a life sentence, with a 20-year sentence handed down to a key Chen aide, and lighter prison sentences for Chen's son, daughter-in-law, and others.
The case has gripped Taiwan for more than three years, becoming a public soap opera in which every move of Chen's extended family has been scrutinized and debated. But "scandal fatigue" has also set in, as the case has dragged on.
"Society isn't focused on this issue," says Hsu Yung-ming, a political analyst from Soochow University. "They care more about the future, under a new cabinet."
Chen's case began as allegations of misuse of a special fund for Taiwan's diplomacy, but then snowballed into charges involving millions of dollars moved through a complex web of shell companies and foreign bank accounts.
Some observers in Taiwan and abroad have criticized the handling of the case. Leaks to the media have been constant. A weekly tabloid correctly predicted Chen's life sentence, lending credence to complaints of loose lips in the judiciary.
Chen has also been in on-and-off detention since last November, including a month's detention without charge – treatment some see as excessive. His Democratic Progressive Party has repeatedly called for his release.