Commentary

Vick's admissions aim to minimize his sentence

Originally Published: August 27, 2007
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- Disgraced NFL star Michael Vick admitted to a federal judge on Monday that he is guilty, in the judge's words, of "interstate conspiracy to violate gambling laws, animal fighting, and the purchase or transport of dogs across state lines for dogfighting."

Judge Henry E. Hudson scheduled Vick's sentencing on those crimes for Dec. 10. Vick's plea agreement, though, didn't answer all the questions about what he has admitted to and what is next for him. Here are some of the questions and the answers:

What are the consequences of Vick's guilty plea?

In addition to confessing to his key role in a brutal dogfighting scheme that went on for six years in five states, Vick has also agreed to "cooperate fully and truthfully" with federal agents and prosecutors. He will face lengthy interrogations and debriefings from teams of agents. Vick must answer all of their questions on any subject. Many people who are charged with criminal conspiracies plead guilty but refuse to help the government investigate and charge others. They serve their time without implicating anyone else. Vick is not in that group. He has signed papers and told a federal judge that he will answer all questions. He has even agreed to submit to a lie detector whenever it is requested. He is now an adjudicated snitch. He might implicate others as he responds to the federal probes. If he is able to help the government in a further investigation of dogfighting or other inquiries into crimes such as guns, drugs, or even public corruption, his lawyers will later tell Hudson that Vick has performed a most painful act of integrity and is entitled to a reduction in his prison time.

What will happen at the sentencing hearing Dec. 10?

Hudson will announce, of course, the specifics of Vick's sentence: time in prison, time on probation, and fines and forfeitures. But before the judge makes his decision, Vick and his team of lawyers will argue for leniency. Larry Woodward, one of Vick's attorneys, asked for time at the sentencing hearing to present arguments and witnesses. At the moment, the lawyers are planning to present evidence for half a day, but the hearing might go longer. Hudson assured Vick that he could have as much time as he wants to present his material. The lawyers will bring in witnesses to describe Vick's charitable activities and other acts of citizenship to try to show that the dogfighting scheme was an exception to what they will say has been an admirable life. Government prosecutors will be able to cross-examine those witnesses and try to attack those arguments.

How much time will Vick spend in prison?

Under the complex formula used in the federal courts, Vick can expect to do 12 to 18 months in a federal penitentiary. But as Hudson told Vick in the 17-minute hearing on Monday, there is no guarantee that his sentence will fall within the range of that formula. With considerable emphasis and in a slightly louder voice, Hudson looked across to Vick during the hearing and said, "I am not bound by the [guidelines]. The decision is mine." At the sentencing hearing on Dec. 10, Hudson can make findings that Vick should be given an "upward departure" or a "downward departure." Those legal phrases mean simply that Hudson can issue a longer sentence or a shorter sentence than the guidelines suggest. It was clear from Hudson's tone that he will make his own decisions on departures, whether upward or downward, and the sentence will be what Hudson decides regardless of recommendations or suggestions from others. Hudson is a judge who uses the word "maximum" more often than he uses the word "minimum" in his sentences. The gruesome and brutal nature of the charges against Vick will be the central factor in Hudson's decision on a sentence, no matter what Vick and his lawyers present. Expect a sentence of 18 to 24 months.

Now that Vick has joined his three cohorts in admitting his guilt, what do we know about Vick's role in the scheme? How important was he?

Vick purchased the land. Vick provided the funds to build the dogfighting venue. He was present when the scheme began in 2001, only eight weeks after he signed his enormous NFL contract. He was still involved at the end, when the police raided his compound on April 25. Without Vick, there would have been no Bad Newz Kennels. It was his money, his land, his leadership and his conspiracy.

Some say Vick has denied that he was involved in the gambling on dogfights. What exactly did he admit?

Vick admitted in court papers that he started and financed a "business enterprise" that "involved gambling." He also admitted that he paid the purse when one of his dogs lost. The purse is defined in papers signed by Vick as a "wager" that is paid to "the winning side." He denied that he made any side bets on the dogfights, but that denial is much like Bill Clinton saying he did not inhale. His highly nuanced denial of side bets will make no difference in what happens before Hudson on Dec. 10 because there was heavy gambling on the dogfights in which Vick's kennel participated. According to the plea agreements of Vick's co-defendants, the purses occasionally amounted to more than $20,000. And Vick has admitted that the money for the kennel and the dogfighting came from him.

Did Vick admit that he was involved in the killing of dogs?

Yes. Although Vick denied that he killed any dogs in the summer of 2002 when his cohorts first executed a number of underperforming dogs, he admitted that he was "aware" of what they were doing. And he admitted that in April, shortly before the first raid on his compound, he "agreed to the killing of approximately 6-8 dogs that did not perform well in 'testing' sessions." He acknowledged in his plea agreement that these dogs were killed by drowning and hanging and other methods, and that they died "as a result of the collective efforts" of Vick and two others. And, most important, Vick agreed to an "upward departure" in the sentencing calculation specifically because of "the victimization and killing of pit bull dogs." That is a costly admission of the killing of dogs because it can be the basis for additional time in prison.

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.