Vick's first court appearance: Double-barreled trouble

Updated: July 26, 2007, 10:38 PM ET
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- The hearings began eight minutes early and finished in less than 25 minutes -- Michael Vick's first taste of the famed "rocket docket" in Richmond, Va. -- and they brought Vick some bad news.

With a team of five lawyers at his side, Vick learned that more charges probably will be added to the array of gruesome federal dogfighting allegations already filed against him. Too, he was told that his two-week jury trial will begin at 9:30 on the morning of Nov. 26.

"That's 9:30 sharp," U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson said, making it clear there will be no unnecessary postponements.

The worse of those two news items for Vick came from Asst. U.S. Attorney Michael Gill, who told Hudson that the federal government will be filing a "superceding indictment" by the end of next month. Although legal experts can disagree on what might come in the new indictment, the federal prosecutors in Richmond typically add charges in superceding indictments. It is unlikely they will eliminate charges.

The message from the government prosecutors to Vick and his three co-defendants (Purnell Peace, Quanis Phillips, and Tony Taylor) was not subtle. Here's the message: We've already charged you with serious crimes. You might want to consider a guilty plea. We are going to file more charges next month. That gives you a few weeks to think about the guilty plea. If you come and talk to us about pleading guilty and testifying for us, there will be no more charges against you. If you do not, the charges and the potential punishment will grow quickly.

Vick trial: Nov. 26

Michael Vick was jeered as he came into court, where he pleaded not guilty Thursday. He later said in a statement: "I take these charges very seriously and look forward to clearing my good name." Story

Although Vick is unlikely to respond to the pressure in that message, it is possible that one or two of the others could seek a lesser jail sentence, or no jail at all, in return for testifying against Vick.

Each of the other three defendants -- all of whom, like Vick, also pleaded not guilty and were released on bond and given the same trial date as Vick on Thursday -- has retained private counsel separate from Vick's legal team. None of them will use a public defender.

The government's revelation of the possibility of additional charges came in the second of two rapid-fire, staccato hearings conducted at the tempo of a top-of-the line marching band. U.S. Magistrate Judge Demmos Dohnal ran through the federal bail litany in what must have been record time, ordering Vick to give up his licenses for a dog kennel and for the breeding of dogs. Dohnal then released him. Less than five seconds after Dohnal had finished, Hudson walked in and continued the breakneck pace.

If anyone had any doubt that Vick's celebrity might change the court's usual pace, Hudson cleared it up quickly. Lawrence Woodward, one of Vick's lawyers, argued that a speedy trial is not possible under the Richmond rules. There is no way, Woodward said, to be ready for trial on Oct. 4, which is what the rules require. He described the complexity of the charges, the need for forensic analysis of some of the dead dogs, and the multi-state nature of the charges.

Hudson listened and ruled instantly, as he did on every other issue during the hearing.

"Yes," Hudson said, "I will treat this case as complex litigation."

And then he set it for trial on Nov. 26, about eight weeks later than the date required by normal docket rules. Woodward and the rest of Vick's legal team likely were hoping for an eight-month delay rather than an eight-week delay. It was apparent that Hudson is serious about the November date.

Vick and the Atlanta Falcons now know what the quarterback will be doing this fall.

Hudson laid out a schedule for the pre-trial skirmishing that is always a part of a major federal conspiracy prosecution. Vick's lawyers might have an advantage in the speedy pre-trial procedures in that they come equipped with money and staff, so it is likely they'll be able to outwork federal prosecutors who must tend to other cases and won't be able to focus solely on Vick.

In another sign of the quick-step culture of the Richmond courthouse, Hudson told the lawyers he will select a jury in "a half a day." With enormous media coverage expected, coupled with the severity of the charges described in the indictment, two veteran Richmond defense lawyers -- both of whom have histories with Hudson -- thought it would take as much as a week to find 12 jurors who haven't already made up their minds on Vick.

"If Judge Hudson says a half a day, then it will be a half a day," one of them observed after the hearings.

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who has been reporting on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry for 18 years, is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com.