Commentary

Michael Vick's unhappy birthday party

Investigators want to know more than just who shot whom at last week's celebration

Originally Published: July 2, 2010
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

Felons, fixes and firearms. Sadly, they all seem to come with the price of the ticket for this Courtside Seat. Today, we start with a song.

Happy Birthday, Dear Michael!

When he was released from the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., on May 20, 2009, Michael Vick was not done with the legal system. Until May 2012, he is on "supervised release." It was once called "parole," a term that carried the stigma of the ex-con. But to make convicted felons feel better about themselves, the authorities came up with the term "supervised release."

Vick's obligations under supervised release are laid out in a highly detailed, two-page, single-spaced court order. Hidden in the legal language of the order are three requirements: no thugs, no drugs, no guns.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
AP Photo/Matt SlocumMichael Vick made it back to the NFL with the Eagles last year. It's possible he'll make it back to Judge Henry Hudson's courtroom this year.

If Vick is even in the presence of thugs, drugs or guns, he might be in violation of the terms of his release.

And that's relevant because Marcus Vick had grand and glorious plans for his brother's 30th birthday. A huge bash at a Mexican restaurant in Virginia Beach for 300 people, including invitations for, among others, Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall, Olympic track gold medalist LaShawn Merritt, NBA star Allen Iverson and a group of women known as the "De Creme Models."

It sounded like it would be the talk of the town.

But now, no one wants to say a word about the party. That is, nobody wants to talk to investigators from the local police, the federal government or the NFL.

Someone pulled a gun and shot somebody. The somebody who got shot, according to Michael Vick's attorney, was Quanis Phillips, one of Vick's key employees in the dogfighting operation that cost the quarterback 21 months in prison and another two months of home confinement. The incident happened as the restaurant closed and the party ended early in the morning of June 25.

Who did it? According to reports in the Hampton Daily Press, "everyone knows." But no one will say. A spokesman for the Virginia Beach Police Department, Adam Bernstein, reports, "We are not getting any cooperation from anyone." Even Phillips, who was treated briefly at a local hospital, refused to discuss the incident and would not name or describe his attacker or how he came about sustaining his injury.

A couple of party guests told the Daily Press -- anonymously, of course -- that the incident began when Kijana Frank, Vick's longtime fiancée, was feeding a piece of double chocolate birthday cake to Vick. Phillips, who betrayed Vick and became a critical witness against him in the dogfighting case, interrupted the touching cake ceremony, smashing the cake into Vick's face.

Some say it was deliberate. Others say it was an accident.

And what was Phillips doing at the party?

Marcus Vick
AP Photo/Michael ConroyMarcus Vick, shown here during the NFL combine in 2006, surely had good intentions when he organized a birthday party for his brother.

Some say Marcus Vick invited him. Others say Phillips crashed the party.

Reports of what happened next are also contradictory, but one (or both) of the Vick brothers was unhappy about the cake in the face and was described as "agitated." The argument continued later outside the restaurant and ended with the gunshot.

The person who did the shooting, according to the police, was a black man wearing a white tank top who drove off in a white Escalade.

But that is all the police know, and the investigation has stalled.

For Michael Vick, however, it is far from over. Even as his guests stonewall all three investigations and a restaurant security video seems to show Vick and his entourage leaving the scene in two cars three minutes before the shooting, Vick may have a problem.

(Vick and his attorney, Larry Woodward, said Vick had left the establishment at least 10 or 20 minutes before the shooting. But the video, supplied to the police by the restaurant's owners, tells a different story.)

At the birthday party, there is little doubt about the presence of at least one certified and convicted thug (Phillips) and at least one gun. Drugs? Is it remotely possible that one of Vick's 300 close friends might have brought a little something with them to the party? And is it possible that the investigators looking into the shooting incident, including the investigators from the NFL, might be asking that question?

In addition to the thugs-drugs-guns requirements of his supervised release, Vick must notify his supervising probation officer "within 72 hours of being arrested or questioned by a law enforcement officer."

If the federal authorities decide that Vick violated any of these requirements, they will bring him before U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson in Richmond, Va. That is not a place Vick wants to be. Any federal judge can be unforgiving in a violation of supervised release, and Hudson is notoriously tough in his sentencing.

If Vick manages to avoid any further repercussions from the party, he might want to reconsider the role of brother Marcus as the planner for his 31st birthday party.

Four-game suspension of disbelief

By the time the courts sort out the legalities of the use of StarCaps by Minnesota Vikings defensive linemen Kevin and Patrick Williams in 2008, both players might have retired. In what might be the most complex jumble in the long history of NFL litigation, the dispute is now pending in both state and federal courts with no end in sight.

The dilemma began with positive drug tests and four-game suspensions for both players under the NFL steroids policy adopted in 2006. The players went through the usual arbitration review and lost in the usual fashion. But attorney Peter Ginsberg of New York filed what appeared to be a quixotic and hopeless attack on the NFL's drug policy, and he has kept the league off balance ever since.

The Williamses played the 2008 and 2009 seasons without serving a minute of their suspensions. They are about to start training camp for the 2010 season and are likely to play a third year without serving their suspensions.

[+] EnlargeKevin Williams, left, and Pat Williams
AP Photo/Jim MoneWhat four-game suspension? Kevin Williams, left, and Pat Williams are still very much active, working out with the Vikings last month.

They're doing it as the result of legal actions initiated by Ginsberg that have now metastasized into appeals court cases in both the Minnesota system and the federal system -- even into the U.S. Supreme Court.

The NFL was winning in the federal courts until Ginsberg found a Minnesota law that governs drug testing in the workplace and used it to bounce the dispute back into state court, where the players obtained an order blocking the suspensions.

The NFL, always ready for a legal battle, keeps bumping into that annoying Minnesota law.

League attorneys asked the judges in the Minnesota appellate court to expedite the appeal process, suggesting that the issue was of great significance and demanded an urgent resolution. That did not work. The judges in the state where the Vikings play decided they would adjudicate the case at their usual pace, almost guaranteeing that the Williamses will again anchor the Vikings' defense in 2010.

At the same time, the NFL asked the U.S. Supreme Court to take the dispute for its consideration. In a mind-numbing and eye-glazing plea for help, the NFL suggested that the players' use of a banned diuretic is a critical matter. The nine Supreme Court justices must decide, the NFL says, whether the Minnesota drug testing law is subject to the "principles of ordinary, rather than complete pre-emption."

Get it?

I don't either.

The NFL's plea for help to the high court is mired deep in legal arcana that would baffle most law professors. If the NFL's issues were presented to students at the Harvard Law School as an exam question, there would be no right answer.

Give Ginsberg and the Williamses some credit. They have litigated the NFL's drug policy to a total standstill and forced the league to cry for help from a place where less than five weeks ago, it suffered a humiliating 9-0 defeat in the American Needle case.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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