Commentary

Tough sentence reflects judge's displeasure with Vick

Updated: December 11, 2007, 9:31 AM ET
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- In the months since Michael Vick pleaded guilty for his role in a federal dogfighting case, Vick should have been trying to impress federal officials with his honesty and contrition. It would have reduced his time in prison considerably.

Instead, Vick flunked a drug test, lied about his drug use and failed a lie-detector test on his role in the executions of fighting dogs that failed to perform.

In his sentencing hearing Monday in Richmond, Va., Vick paid the price.

U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson sentenced Vick to 23 months in a federal penitentiary. With time off for good behavior, Vick would be eligible for release in May 2009.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
Paul Abell/US PresswireMichael Vick, who was sentenced Monday to 23 months in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting scheme, could be released in May 2009.

If Vick, who filed a guilty plea Aug. 24, had cooperated with FBI agents and probation officials, the sentence could easily have been between 12 and 18 months.

It was apparent in the opening moments of the hearing that Hudson was not happy with Vick's performance in the presentence procedures. As Vick's attorney, Billy Martin, tried to explain that Vick had "accepted responsibility" for his role in the dogfighting scheme, Hudson interrupted, describing two specific statements Vick had made and the exact dates when he made them.

Hudson demanded to know how Vick, sitting at a table in the courtroom in a black-and-white-striped chain-gang jail jumpsuit, could have denied a personal role in the execution of seven dogs in April 2007 and how he could have lied to an FBI agent about his marijuana use.

Martin tried to explain, suggesting that Vick merely handed a dog to a cohort for hanging and that the disgraced NFL star was smoking dope as "self-medication for clinical depression."

Neither explanation seemed to impress Hudson.

Martin described the false statements as "hiccups" and "bumps on the road to redemption."

The judge quickly responded that Vick's story on executions was contradicted by two of Vick's cohorts, and that Vick had tested positive for marijuana.

"These were false statements to federal agents," the judge observed, closing the discussion.

Acceptance of responsibility is a critical factor in the calculation of federal sentences. If Vick had shown he accepted responsibility, his sentence under federal guidelines would have been in the range of 12 to 18 months.

Henry E. Hudson
AP PhotoU.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson, who sentenced Vick on Monday, told Vick he should "be apologizing to the millions of kids who idolize you."

But Hudson refused to give Vick any credit for acceptance of responsibility, asserting that Vick made "false denials" to government agents about executing the dogs and "was less than candid about his drug use."

Hudson's ruling pushed Vick into a range of 18 to 24 months in prison -- with Hudson sentencing him to one month less than the maximum under the guidelines.

In addition to the deception on drugs and executions, federal prosecutor Michael Gill explained that Vick "had made a calculated effort to hide the truth" on four other issues in interviews with federal agents.

Vick's lawyers made no effort to deny Gill's assertion, and when Gill offered to support his claim with testimony from an FBI agent, attorney Martin quickly told Hudson that would not be necessary. The subjects of these FBI queries are not known because they are sealed in court files unavailable to the media and the public.

In addition to the 23 months in a minimum-security penitentiary, Hudson ordered Vick to serve three years of "closely supervised probation."

It is a maximum sentence under federal rules and will require Vick to report to a probation officer frequently. He will be subjected to drug tests and forced to tell the officer about everything he does, from applying for a new credit card to buying a new home.

Hudson's tough approach to the Vick sentencing was instantly apparent when Vick entered the courtroom. As he walked down two steps from a lockup in the rear of the courtroom, spectators saw the chain-gang outfit and gasped.

Vick's attorneys had requested permission from Hudson to allow Vick to change into a suit before the court appearance. Hudson refused, requiring Vick to wear the uniform of the jail in Warsaw, Va., where he began serving his time last month.

In six to 10 weeks, Vick will be assigned to a federal prison where he will serve the remainder of his time.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
AP Photo/Steve Helber, POOLVick, shown entering court in August, pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges.

Vick's family members, including brother Marcus, were permitted to sit in a front row of the courtroom but were separated from Vick by a low wall and a phalanx of federal agents. In previous court appearances, Vick's family sat inside the low wall, close enough to talk with and touch him.

Even Michael Vick's personal apology did not impress Hudson. As Vick tried to make a statement, Hudson admonished him, saying he should "be apologizing to the millions of kids who idolize you."

In addition to prison and supervised release, Vick must pay the government nearly $1 million for its care of the dogs seized on his property.

Vick's financial situation is increasingly precarious, with creditors piling on with lawsuits against him over a car rental business, a line of credit and a wine shop.

In addition, an NFL arbitrator has ruled that Vick must return nearly $20 million in bonus money. Vick is appealing that ruling, and many legal experts expect him to succeed in reversing the arbitrator's decision.

Vick's sentence concludes a rocket ride through the criminal justice system that began with a raid on his kennel property in Surry, Va., on April 25, 2007, and concluded with his prison sentence seven months later.

As his lawyer, Martin, said outside the courthouse after the sentencing, "Never has someone fallen so hard, so fast and so far."

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.