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Co-defendants provide dramatic evidence against Vick

8/17/2007

On Friday morning, the last two of Michael Vick's co-defendants in a federal dogfighting case -- Quanis Phillips and Purnell Peace -- pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture. They now add their names and their knowledge to testimony from four cooperating witnesses and Tony Taylor, a co-defendant who earlier agreed to testify against Vick. With the evidence piling up against the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback, where does that leave the case? Here are the latest questions and answers.

Now that they have pleaded guilty, what do Peace and Phillips provide to the government's case against Vick that wasn't there before?

Both of Vick's former cohorts in the alleged dogfighting scheme will bring dramatic and powerful testimony against Vick. The most difficult testimony for Vick to counter will be Peace's description of a doubleheader dogfight in March 2003. According to the "Summary of the Facts" that Peace signed as part of his plea agreement, Vick and Peace entered two dogs from Bad Newz Kennels in that fight. Both lost. If the Vick case goes to trial, Peace will testify in front of the judge and jury that he and Vick "executed the dog by wetting the dog down with water and electrocuting the animal." That isn't all. Peace and Phillips will describe eight more executions during 2004 and 2005, all of them occurring on Vick's compound in Surry County, Va. All eight dogs flunked fighting tests. Some were drowned. Others were hanged. And one was killed -- with Vick allegedly present -- by "slamming its body into the ground."

When testimony from Peace and Phillips is added to the testimony from Taylor, the government's case against Vick appears to be overwhelming. The seven witnesses can describe the alleged dogfighting scheme from its inception in 2001, less than eight weeks after Vick signed his first NFL contract, to its demise three months ago when police raided Vick's compound in rural Surry County. The seven witnesses allegedly can describe Vick building the dogfighting facility, buying dogs, breeding dogs, training dogs, betting on dogs, paying for everything and participating in gruesome executions of losing dogs.

What effect would testimony from Peace and Phillips have on a jury?

Their testimony will be brutal and horrifying. It is the kind of testimony that likely will transcend anything Vick might be able to offer in explanation or mitigation of the charges against him. Even if the jurors believe only half of what Peace and Phillips say, it could push Vick to the edge of a conviction and serious prison time. Their testimony might also force Vick to testify in the trial, something his lawyers likely want to avoid. Without a denial from Vick about what these guys say, Vick will be finished. If he does testify, he faces a nightmare of cross-examination from federal prosecutors armed with at least seven cooperating witnesses and six years of e-mails, documents and financial records from Bad Newz Kennels.

On the issues of money and gambling, what will Peace and Phillips offer against Vick?

They will join Taylor (the first co-defendant to plead guilty) in describing the critical roles of Vick's name and his money in the establishment and the financing of the 15-acre kennel compound. More importantly, Peace and Phillips will tell the jury that Vick was the gambler in the enterprise. He was the winner when they won and the loser when they lost. The bets that were made, were made with Vick's money. In his plea agreement, Taylor said Vick was the source of all funds, both for the operation and for the gambling. He said one of the cohorts made the side bets, but Vick took the wins and paid the losses.

Vick's participation in this form of gambling will cause him serious difficulty with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, as well as the government if a superseding indictment comes down and includes a felony gambling charge. Peace will describe Vick's payment of $23,000 in losses from the dogfight doubleheader in March 2003. Peace was present, he will testify, when Vick paid the money from a stash he kept in a book bag. Both Peace and Phillips will also describe Vick paying $11,000 in losses from a fight against a dog named "Trouble" in late 2003.

What can Vick expect from the NFL as this evidence piles up against him?

Peace and Phillips and their description of Vick's gambling add to an already difficult situation with the NFL. Vick reportedly told the commissioner face-to-face shortly after the first raid on his compound in April that he was not involved in dogfighting and gambling. The evidence of Vick's role in the kennel and his gambling now appears overwhelming. The last celebrity athlete to tell a commissioner face-to-face that he was not gambling despite a mountain of evidence against him was Pete Rose. The commissioner who listened to Rose's denial, Bart Giamatti, issued an order that banned Rose for life. Rose, of course, was betting on baseball while he managed the Reds. That was a more serious set of lies than Vick's alleged untruths, but lying to Goodell about gambling might do more damage to Vick's career than anything he did to the dogs.

Why would Vick hesitate to join Taylor, Peace and Phillips in admitting his guilt and accepting his punishment?

Vick has enjoyed six years of riches and celebrity. Obviously, he has vastly more to lose than his three alleged cohorts do. In a matter of three months, his focus has turned from succeeding as an NFL quarterback to potentially surviving time in a federal penitentiary. Instead of tens of millions of dollars in income, he is facing months of confinement if he admits his guilt. Most importantly, a plea of guilty and some prison time do not guarantee him a return to the NFL. If he is going to plead guilty in court, Vick and his lawyers want to settle with the NFL at the same time. They want an agreement that will allow Vick to return to the NFL.

Generally in multiparty negotiations such as this one, the lawyers refer to their goal as a "global settlement." It would resolve all issues, and the "global" adjective makes everyone sound important. A global settlement for Vick is unlikely, because Goodell is not interested in settling anything with Vick until the commissioner knows what will happen in the court action against the Falcons' quarterback. If Vick cannot use a plea of guilty to guarantee his return to the NFL, he may be looking hard at the idea of fighting the charges in a jury trial and hoping for a miracle.

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.