- Lester Munson, Legal Analyst
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On Monday afternoon, NFL star Michael Vick agreed to admit his guilt in a dogfighting and gambling scheme. Billy Martin, Vick's lead attorney, announced Vick's decision as a federal grand jury in Richmond, Va., was preparing additional charges against the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback. Vick's admission of guilt, as well as the timing of it, raises questions. Here are some answers:
Why did Michael Vick enter into an agreement to plead guilty?
In strictly legal terms, this is an agreement by Vick. In the bigger picture, it's a surrender. Vick is admitting his guilt because he and his legal team realized that there is no escape from the charges related to the federal dogfighting case. They wanted to negotiate with federal prosecutors, and they wanted to negotiate with the NFL. Instead of a negotiation from the prosecutors, Vick and his lawyers kept receiving bad news from them. That trend would have continued with additional charges being filed if Vick's legal team had not given up the fight on Monday afternoon. Instead of a negotiation with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about the manner in which the league intended to punish Vick, Vick and his legal team received a cold shoulder. When they could not negotiate, they had no alternative. They had to surrender.
If the federal case against Vick is so overwhelming, why would the federal prosecutors agree to accept Vick's plea of guilty?
The job of a federal prosecutor is to seek justice, not to seek revenge or punishment. Whenever an accused individual is willing to admit guilt and accept the consequences, federal prosecutors are interested. A guilty plea brings the case to a final conclusion. It saves hundreds of thousands of dollars in trial preparation, and it avoids any chance something could go wrong in the trial that would allow a guilty defendant to go free. In the dogfighting case, it was important to the prosecution team that Vick admit he was doing wrong. It is a major step forward in a national effort to eliminate dogfighting.
Vick will appear in court again on Aug. 27. What should we watch for?
Vick and the government prosecutors will file papers that give the details of Vick's admissions. The factual details in those papers will be critical. Will Vick admit that in March 2003, he helped Quanis Phillips, one of his co-defendants, hose down a losing dog and then electrocute it? Will he admit that he helped execute eight more dogs in 2004 and 2005, some by hanging, some by drowning and one by slamming it on the ground until it was dead? Will he admit that it was his money that was used in the purses and the side bets in the dogfights described by his cohorts? If he admits a personal role in the execution of dogs and a lead role in the gambling enterprise, he might never return to the NFL. Goodell and NFL officials will scrutinize these papers as they decide what should be done with Vick.
In addition to the details disclosed in the paperwork, watch next Monday for Judge Henry Hudson to set a date for Vick's sentencing. In most federal courthouses, the sentencing comes at least several months after the guilty plea; but in the "rocket docket" procedures that prevail in Richmond, the sentencing will probably come more quickly, perhaps as early as October. Judge Hudson must also determine whether to sentence Vick's co-defendants before he sentences Vick. Tony Taylor, the first of Vick's cohorts to plead guilty and agree to testify against Vick, was to be sentenced on Dec. 14, after he testified at Vick's trial (which had been set for late November). That scheduling was an obvious incentive for Taylor to testify effectively against Vick. But now, with Vick's admission of guilt and the trial off the docket, Judge Hudson may move the date of Taylor's sentencing up, and sentence all three of Vick's co-defendants, including Quanis Phillips and Purnell Peace, before he sentences Vick. All three will be entitled to consideration for leniency because they admitted their guilt and promised to help the federal prosecutors in their case against Vick.
How much time will Vick spend in jail?
Previous reports indicate that the government wanted Vick to spend between 18 and 36 months in a federal penitentiary. Other reports say it could be between 12 and 18. Before the judge issues a sentence, Vick must submit to an investigation by federal probation authorities. Probation officers will investigate his life in painstaking detail, including the dogfighting enterprise. These pre-sentence reports are kept secret and submitted only to the sentencing judge. The report will include a recommendation on a sentence. Judge Henry Hudson will consider the report's conclusions as he sentences Vick. Hudson has been tough when it comes to sentences. He uses the word "maximum" more often than he uses the words "minimum" or "probation." If Vick cannot convince Hudson that he can be a good citizen, Vick will be doing 24 months or more.
Why did Vick wait until Monday to admit his guilt?
This investigation is not even three months old. It has progressed with incredible speed. The first raid on Vick's 15-acre compound came on April 25. Agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture quickly entered the investigation and took it over. They have quickly put together an extraordinary amount of high-quality evidence. Until the raid, Vick was living a life of celebrity and success. It must have been very difficult for him to make the adjustments necessary to realize he was in serious trouble and on his way to jail. Not long ago, he was telling Goodell personally that he was not guilty of anything. Today, he surrenders. So his plea of guilty is not late. In fact, it comes earlier than anyone could have imagined.
Are there any winners in this terrible story?
Yes. The winners are the investigating agents, the federal prosecutors and the humane societies. I have never seen an investigation in the sports industry that was done so quickly and so professionally. The only possible comparison is to the virtuoso work of Greg Garrison, the Indianapolis attorney who prepared and tried the rape case against former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, which led to Tyson's conviction and three years in prison. In most cases against celebrity athletes, the athlete has most of the advantages: better investigators, better lawyers and more money. Vick had the money and the lawyers, but he never caught up with the investigators and prosecutors in Virginia.
The local prosecutor in Surry County, Va., where Vick built his dogfighting compound, says he will now take action against Vick. What can he do to Vick that the federal authorities haven't already done?
Gerald Poindexter, the local prosecutor, can huff and puff and seek attention, but that's about it. Vick need not worry much about Poindexter. The federal authorities have the seven witnesses, the financial records, the e-mails and all the other evidence. Poindexter can charge Vick with dogfighting under a Virginia law that makes it a felony, but any punishment the player might serve on that charge would be done at the same time Vick is serving his federal sentence. Poindexter appears to be a bit embarrassed that the feds took over an investigation that he had started, and so whatever action he ultimately takes might be motivated, at least in part, by a desire to save face.
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.
ESPN.com senior writer Lester Munson has answers to the legal questions that arise from Michael Vick's agreement to plead guilty to federal dogfighting charges.