Let's not rush to judgment
No matter how repulsive the charges, no matter how bad the dogfighting indictment makes Michael Vick appear, it's unfair to judge without weighing the evidence, Mike Sando writes in his debut column for ESPN.com.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could score easy points with an angry public by hitting Michael Vick hard before the quarterback gets his day in court.
He could take the politically expedient route by handing down a one-year suspension or even moving to banish Vick from the game.
And who could blame him? The felony dogfighting charges against Vick are gruesome enough to sicken anyone with a conscience.
But if Goodell can reach a logical compromise -- somehow finding a way for Vick to sit out while his federal court case runs its course -- the league can protect its long-term interests without inappropriately coddling the Atlanta Falcons' star along the way.
Think about it.
If the NFL suspends Vick for the season or otherwise punishes him harshly, only to see him prevail in court, Goodell's push for a harder line on discipline might die an unnecessary death, or at least lose momentum.
Goodell has taken back a measure of control from players after team owners lost ground in their most recent labor agreement. If sustained, those gains could give the league needed bargaining power in its next round of negotiations. Making the wrong call on Vick could jeopardize the league's position.
If the federal indictment is true and Vick's dogfighting enterprise electrocuted wounded animals while breeding others to kill, the quarterback deserves prison time and the unmitigated condemnation that is already coming his way.
Animal-rights activists are organizing protests outside NFL offices, demanding action and threatening boycotts. Their outrage is understandable. Vick bears some responsibility for even putting himself in position to be indicted.
And yet a civil society can't let emotions interfere with due process. No matter how repulsive the charges, no matter how much we love our pets, no matter how bad the indictment makes Vick appear, it's unfair to judge without weighing the evidence.
Several phone conversations with defense attorneys and legal scholars drove home a point easily lost amid the outrage: No one has seen all the evidence. An indictment is all we have, and it's not enough.
"The prosecutor can get an automobile indicted," Maryland-based defense attorney Jonathan L. Katz said. "The prosecutor puts in the witnesses that he wants and then at the end he says, 'Look, here's an indictment, please agree to it.'
"It just requires the grand jury members to find there is probable cause to believe that a crime occurred. Well, probable cause is not much more than a hunch."
Katz and others were generally skeptical of a grand jury process that the American Bar Association considers vulnerable to abuse. They warned against giving too much credence to federal indictments that haven't withstood basic tests such as cross-examination. They noted that federal prosecutors claim conviction rates topping 90 percent in part because so many overmatched defendants avoid trials.
"A grand jury indictment is like the opening drive of a football game," said former federal prosecutor Timothy J. Heaphy, a Virginia defense attorney with experience in high-profile cases. "One side gets to go first and that's the government. The prosecutor can keep the other team off the field and score the first points of the game.
"Is there probable cause to believe these criminal offenses were committed? Usually the grand jury says 'yes' because they've heard only one side. The prosecutor is the gatekeeper of what they hear."
As troubling as the indictment might be, securing one was no surprise once the feds convened a grand jury.
"In point of fact, it's incredibly rare for a grand jury not to issue an indictment," said Charlottesville, Va., attorney Neal Walters, a regular lecturer at the University of Virginia. "It makes good drama on TV, but in that sense, if the U.S. attorney goes to grand jury, it's highly likely they are going to get an indictment."
The process is not particularly thorough or evenhanded. There isn't even a judge, only a rush to judge once prosecutors reveal their side of the story.
"The main thing you should watch out for is convicting the guy based on a grand jury indictment," University of Southern California law professor Charles Whitebread said. "People hear 'grand jury' and think, 'Oh, what a grand bunch.' They think he's guilty."
And he might be. The indictment suggests prosecutors have multiple witnesses who can detail Vick's firsthand involvement over several years. Other witnesses could agree to testify as the government, backed by skilled attorneys and virtually unlimited resources, advances its case. It's a grim picture for Vick and the Falcons.
Chuck Rosenberg, U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, has not been mistaken for the discredited prosecutor behind the infamous case of wrongly accused Duke lacrosse players.
"He is known to be a very low-key straight shooter," Heaphy said. "He is not the type of guy who does stuff strictly for press spectacle. He is somebody that is very careful, very meticulous and very responsible.
"So my guess is that he would not have authorized this indictment strictly to make a splash. That's just not what motivates him in my experience."
The nature of the charges against Vick seems to compel immediate action by someone, but whom? Public protests provide one avenue. Sponsors will likely sever ties.
Goodell will presumably respond forcefully if the government proves its case. He has already suspended several of the league's repeat offenders. And yet the league would be wise to proceed with caution until more is known.
"Look, I'm a vegetarian for ethical purposes," said Katz, the Maryland-based defense attorney. "I don't want anyone misusing dogs. It's just that we should let the jury trial take its course and then make judgments when the jury is all done."
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
VICK SENTENCED TO 23 MONTHS
Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison and three years' probation for his role in a dogfighting conspiracy. The suspended Falcons quarterback is looking at a scheduled release of July 2009. Story
Update• GM: Falcons will attempt to trade Vick
• Lawyer: Vick might move to halfway house
• Former Vick estate fails to sell again
• Vick house fails to sell at auction
• Vick files for bankruptcy protection
• Prosecutor: Vick's Virginia trial can wait
• Vick ordered to repay Canadian bank $2.4 million
• Judge denies NFL motion to reverse Vick ruling
• Report: Vick not playing organized football in jail
• Report: Vick passes time with prison-yard football
• Vick's state dogfighting trial to begin June 27
• Munson: Vick yet to enter drug treatment
The sentence• Vick sent to Kansas to serve rest of sentence
• Vick asked judge for leniency before sentencing
• Vick sentenced to 23 months | Document (pdf)
• Poll: What do you think? | What they're saying
• Clayton: Sentence puts career in jeopardy
• Munson: Tough sentence by displeased judge
• Teammates show support at Falcons game
• Can Vick return to playing in NFL?
• Pasquarelli: No longer top of mind in Atlanta
• Last Vick co-defendant sentenced
• Podcasts : Cossack | Schlereth | Munson/Naqi | Pasquarelli
• Chat wrap: David Cornwell
Post Plea• NFL wants court to reverse Vick bonus ruling
• Victory for Vick: QB can keep $20 million bonus
• Fifth defendant in Vick case receives probation
• Vick's house for sale for $1.1M
• Some Falcons to visit Vick in prison
• PETA unveils new e-card
• Former Virginia estate fails to sell at auction
• Out of Falcons' sight, almost out of mind
• Judge's casework offers look at possible sentence
• Remaining dogs placed with rescue groups
• Source: Feds may push judge to up sentence
• NFLPA argues Vick should not lose roster bonus
• Vick co-defendants get 18, 21 months in prison
• Vick agrees to put up almost $1M for dogs' care
• Vick given April trial date on state charges
• Vick surrenders to begin serving sentence early
• Home at center of Vick dogfighting scandal sold
• Vick fires one of his lawyers in dogfighting case
• Man who sold Vick pit bull pleads guilty
• Man connected to Vick dogfight ring pleads guilty
• Third bank sues Vick, claims he defaulted on loan
• Arbiter: Falcons have right to reclaim bonuses
• PETA: Vick had class on animal cruelty
• Evaluations show 48 of Vick's dogs placeable
• Vick tests positive for marijuana
• Vick supporters turn out for town meeting
• Vick's apology notes fetch $10.2K at auction
Vick's Plea/NFL Suspension• Vick pleads guilty to federal dogfighting charge
• The plea (PDF) | Statement of facts (PDF)
• Vick's statement: Watch it | Read it
• Roger Cossack explains plea deal
• Poll: Vick should be banned
• Va. Tech, Beamer continue to support Vick
• Vick supporters drown out protesters
• NFL suspends Vick indefinitely | Goodell (PDF)
• Chris Mortensen on Vick's suspension
• Vick files plea agreement admitting to dogfighting
Indictment• Marbury's about-face: Vick 'is 100 percent wrong'
• National NAACP: Vick 'not a victim' | Audio
• Atlanta NAACP: Vick should be allowed to return
• Falcons come to terms with 'ex-teammate'
• Vick timeline | What they're saying
• Helyar: Even Atlanta turns against Vick
• Goodell: Vick not overshadowing season
• Vick co-defendant pleads guilty to charges
• Tony Taylor: Summary of Facts | Plea agreement
• Hometown residents stand by Vick
• Falcons had planned to suspend Vick
• Commish tells Vick to avoid camp
• Vick indicted | The indictment (pdf) | Civil arrest warrant (pdf)
Town Hall meeting• Town Hall chat wrap: Chadiha
Previous columns/analysis• Munson: Q&A on Vick reporting to prison early
• Munson: Looking at Judge Hudson
• Vick's high school learning lessons
• Bryant: Confounded by race issue
• Munson: Q&A about local indictment
• Munson: Next focus for Vick is length of sentence
• Schlabach: Vick an afterthought on VT campus
• Chadiha: Vick not running from truth
• Hill: Coverage means bigger issues ignored
• Wojciechowski: Pay attention to the fallen star
• Bryant: Vick's plea deal comes with baggage
• Bryant: In failing Vick, NFLPA fails itself
• Munson: Vick plea means surrender
• Forde: Vick's epic fall
• Pasquarelli: Major blow for Falcons
• Chadiha: Lots of lessons to be learned
• Wojciechowski: Punishment with teeth
• Easterbrook: Little sympathy?
• Clayton: Vick's NFL future might be bleak
• E-Ticket: A history of mistrust
• Chadiha: Vick's bad choices