The plea agreement is 11 pages long, the summary of facts another 10. But the endgame for Michael Vick can be reduced to one simple goal: Stay out of prison, no matter what the cost.
According to federal documents, Vick will cooperate in full with federal prosecutors to tell them everything he knows. To save his hide, he becomes an informant.
He may be called a snitch, but aiding federal
authorities is the most honorable thing for this disgraced man to do at
this late date. It could even be the beginning of his redemption.
For a moment late Thursday night, when the crawl line across the television screen announced the breaking news that Vick would not admit to killing dogs or gambling on dogfights, it appeared the government's case had fallen apart, that somehow Vick was prepared to stand defiant in defense of his past actions and future.
But that was merely an exercise in language massage. The truth is different, hard and justly unsympathetic.
Vick's admissions in the summary of facts filed in federal court Friday are purposely murky. Perhaps they are worded to persuade an angry NFL commissioner about to drop the hammer of a major suspension that Vick isn't quite as guilty as he once appeared. (Didn't work, apparently. Roger Goodell suspended him indefinitely later in the day.) Maybe they are intended to create an additional shade of doubt in those die-hard fans who don't want to believe Vick is the sort of man capable of electrocuting, drowning and shooting another living creature. Or maybe the words are difficult to understand simply because they were written by lawyers. But do not be fooled: Vick is guilty. He admits to gambling and to being an active participant in the torture and killing of dogs, and no massaging of the words will change that.
Read both documents and the conclusion is obvious: His motivation right now is not to express his innocence of the charges, but to cooperate enough to land on probation, or on house arrest or some lesser form of punishment that will keep him away from a federal penitentiary. Vick likely faces 12-18 months in prison, but ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack believes it's possible Vick could provide enough information to federal investigators about the illegal, underground world of dogfighting and the people who finance it that he might not go jail at all.
Muddying the truth is a dangerous but effective way of confusing the public; and these days, it is an art form. Barry Bonds, reportedly, saying he did not "knowingly" take steroids has somehow morphed into "it has never been proven that Bonds used steroids."
Vick's legal team attempted to mitigate his involvement in gambling by including in the plea agreement the statement that he didn't make side bets. Yet in Paragraph 4 found on the third page of the summary of facts, the government states, "Vick agrees that the 'Bad Newz Kennels' business enterprise involved gambling activities in violation of the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia as set forth in the indictment."
The document goes on to read, "For a particular dogfight, the opponents would establish a purse or wager for the winning side, ranging from the 100's up to the 1,000's of dollars. The purse was contingent and dependent on the uncertain outcome of the dogfight, with the winner taking all of the purse at the conclusion of the fight."
Vick's legal team attempted to use language in the documents that might lessen the impact of his involvement in the killing or torture of the dogs. Page 5 of the summary of facts offers details of the summer of 2002, when "[Purnell] Peace, [Quanis] Phillips, [Tony] Taylor and Vick 'rolled' or 'tested' additional 'Bad Newz Kennels' dogs by putting the dogs through fighting sessions at 1915 Moonlight Road … Vick was aware that Phillips, Peace and Taylor killed a number of dogs that did not perform well in testing sessions around this same time period. Vick did not kill any dogs at this time."
And on Page 9, the summary reads, "Peace, Phillips and Vick agreed to the killing of approximately 6-8 dogs that did not perform well in 'testing' sessions at 1915 Moonlight Road and all of those dogs were killed by various methods, including hanging and drowning. Vick agrees and stipulates that these dogs all died as a result of the collective efforts of Peace, Phillips and Vick."
You be the judge.
Vick's signature appears formidably in ink on both official documents.
Anyone still unclear that Vick is desperate to save his skin and not attempting to appeal to his fans that he did not do what he's been accused of should read Page 4, Paragraph 10 (and its subparagraphs) of the plea agreement, the section titled "Defendant's Cooperation":
"The defendant agrees to cooperate fully and truthfully with the United States, and provide all information known to the defendant regarding any criminal activity as requested by the government. In that regard:
"a. The defendant agrees to testify truthfully and completely at any grand juries, trials or other proceedings."
That means Vick will take the witness stand and tell the government about anything it wants to know about what went on at his dogfighting matches, or any other dogfighting matches he attended or even knows about. It means turning informant on friends, on possible friends, on relatives if they're involved. And if the NFL is really in trouble, it might even mean turning informant on other football players.
"b. The defendant agrees to be reasonably available for debriefing and pretrial conferences as the United States may require.
"c. The defendant agrees to provide all documents, records, writings or materials of any kind in the defendant's possession or under the defendant's care, custody or control, relating directly or indirectly to all areas of inquiry and investigation."
Which is government-speak for saying that Vick must give up whatever paper trail -- records, e-mails, letters, text messages, the works -- that might lead to his friends.
"d. The defendant agrees that, upon request by the United States, the defendant will voluntarily submit to polygraph examinations to be conducted by a polygraph examiner of the United States' choice."
That's a lie detector, folks.
"e. The defendant agrees that the Statement of Facts is limited to information to support the plea. The defendant will provide more detailed facts relating to this case during ensuing debriefings."
That means prosecutors believe there is more information out there, and Vick is the one who is going to provide it.
"f. The defendant is hereby on notice that the defendant may not violate any federal, state or local criminal law while cooperating with the government, and that the government will, in its discretion, consider any such violation in evaluating whether to file a motion for a downward departure or reduction of sentence."
Which means he'd better be on his best behavior. No nightclub fights, no DUIs, no anything.
"g. Nothing in this agreement places any obligation on the government to seek the defendant's cooperation or assistance."
That last clause means Vick must volunteer everything he knows.
Later in the agreement, in Paragraph 14 starting on Page 6, the government stipulates that any violation by Vick of any portion of his plea agreement could result in the government placing the full weight of the law on him.
Still, for all the emotion and anger, for all of the societal hot buttons this case has pressed at once -- race, class, privilege, the debate about cruelty to animals versus the value of human life -- this conclusion feels unsatisfying. Here is the saga of a man who financed and oversaw an inhumane operation, who was party to all of its graphic brutality and who, to date, has not shown an ounce of remorse. The fact that he still has a chance to avoid jail seems incongruous, even unfair, especially in a world in which it appears that hard time seems to exist only for the guilty poor, the average or the unconnected.
But the government's case isn't about vengeance. It's about justice and investigating illegal activity. Should the government decide that Vick is of best use if he testifies against other dogfighters and explains the depths of a deadly business enterprise that should not exist -- instead of being behind bars himself -- that, and not the satisfaction that the guilty serve time, will have to be enough.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.