Commentary

Two more plea deals spell serious trouble for Vick

Updated: August 15, 2007, 12:51 PM ET
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

Two of Michael Vick's co-defendants in a massive dogfighting conspiracy indictment have indicated they will plead guilty and might testify against Vick in a trial that begins Nov. 26 in Richmond, Va. Purnell Peace, 35, and Quanis Phillips, 28, will appear before U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson later this week to admit their participation in a scheme of breeding, training, fighting and executing pit bull terriers that went on for six years in five states. Their actions raise a number of questions for Vick, who is considering his own plea. Here are some of the questions and the answers:

What do these anticipated guilty pleas mean for Vick?

These developments are terrible news for Vick. He already was caught in a bad situation with five witnesses ready to testify against him. The five included four who cooperated early with the government and helped federal prosecutors with the devastating details in the 18-page indictment. Then, two weeks ago, Tony Taylor, another of Vick's co-defendants, agreed to admit guilt and testify against Vick. Taylor, according to the indictment, worked with Vick to establish the dogfighting operation less than eight weeks after Vick signed his first NFL contract. Adding Peace and Phillips to these five witnesses leaves Vick in a legal checkmate. He is surrounded by hostile forces. There might be no escape from the brutal charges against him. Peace and Phillips are mentioned a total of 94 times in the indictment. Their testimony puts Vick in the middle of the scheme from its beginning in June 2001 until it ended with a police raid this past April.

With seven witnesses lined up against him, what should Vick do?

Vick should be assessing the same realities that led Peace and Phillips to plead guilty. Sources have told ESPN that Vick is deciding whether to consider the possibility of a prison sentence of less than one year. Government prosecutors want a prison sentence of more than one year, according to ESPN sources, and Vick's lawyers have suggested to him that he seriously consider a prison sentence of less than one year. Vick has a difficult decision to make. Unless he is caught in some level of denial or delusion, Vick must be looking hard at the idea of admitting guilt and considering an outcome that would allow him to preserve some fraction of his career in the NFL. Vick has the money and the lawyers to put up a powerful fight, but they are up against a massive and impressive investigation as well as the seven witnesses. Billy Martin, Vick's lead lawyer, has done wonders in a courtroom, but the government's case against Vick provides scant opportunity for creating the kind of "reasonable doubt" that can lead to a not guilty verdict. A jury likely would be outraged by the brutality of the evidence and impressed with its substance and its gravity. It would not be a big surprise if Vick enters a guilty plea within the next several days.

Why would Vick's friends and cohorts in the alleged dogfighting enterprise decide to admit their guilt?

It must have been difficult for Peace and Phillips to decide to admit their culpability and agree to testify against Vick. It was Vick's name and money that made the alleged operation possible. Peace and Phillips are high school dropouts who, according to the indictment, performed various chores for Bad Newz Kennels for six years, enjoying the excitement of the dark side of celebrity. Without Vick, none of it would have been possible. Both must have felt they owed Vick something, but both decided to help themselves even if it meant hurting Vick. Their decisions will allow them to avoid the cost and the agony of a trial and reduce their possible time in prison. Their decisions were based on difficult realities. If the case goes to trial, the prosecutors will suggest that their decisions were painful acts of integrity that will help eradicate dogfighting in America.

What will happen now to Peace and Phillips?

When they appear in court in Richmond later this week, Peace and Phillips will present signed plea agreements to Hudson. They will promise to tell the entire truth about the alleged dogfighting operation to agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and federal prosecutors. In return, they will claim they are entitled to leniency in the sentences that result from their admissions. Both have prior criminal convictions and face serious prison time under federal sentencing guidelines. If they help the government and are not caught in any lies, they can expect their prison time to be cut in half.

What's next? Can it get any worse for Vick?

Yes, it could get worse in a hurry. The federal prosecutors in Richmond are preparing a new set of charges, known in legal terms as a superseding indictment. The new charges could come any day. The new charges might include a racketeering allegation under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (known as RICO). RICO originally was designed as a weapon against organized-crime hoodlums but has been used frequently in other prosecutions. A charge under RICO would make Vick's situation significantly worse. It would make the government's case against him easier to prove, and it would increase the prison sentence Vick would face if convicted.

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.