- Lester Munson, Legal Analyst
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When Michael Vick walks into the old gray brick building at 1000 East Main Street in Richmond, Va., on Thursday afternoon, he will enter a federal courthouse that features trials that are quick and fair and sentences that can be harsh.
Facing charges that he participated for six years in a dogfighting scheme, Vick also must battle issues of celebrity and notoriety as well as the savagery described in the indictment filed against him last week.
The judge presiding over the Vick case is U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson, a former prosecutor who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2002.
"I love the trials before Judge Hudson, but I hate the sentences," observed one experienced and highly regarded Richmond defense lawyer. "He will let you try your case, he will give you every chance to offer a defense, but if you're convicted, you will be facing serious problems at sentencing."
The lawyer, who requested anonymity because of a possible involvement in Vick's defense, explained that Hudson takes a unique approach to the guidelines that are a part of sentencing decisions in federal courts throughout the U.S.
"Most judges start at the minimum and move up or down in small increments. Judge Hudson starts at the midpoint of the guidelines spectrum and moves toward the maximum. The result can be surprisingly harsh."
The charges against Vick provide for a maximum jail sentence of six years and up to $350,000 in fines.
Although several experienced defense lawyers contacted by ESPN.com agreed that Vick can expect the fairest of trials, they warned that there will be significant problems, especially if the case is tried before a jury.
Vick and his lawyers will tell Hudson on Thursday whether they want a jury trial. The brutality of the charges might lead Vick to ask for a bench trial in which Hudson would decide whether Vick is guilty. If Vick wishes to waive his right to a jury trial, his three co-defendants must agree. But the prosecution also has a right to a jury trial and may insist that the nasty allegations against Vick and three others be presented to a jury. If one side, or one co-defendant, insists on a jury trial, then there will be a jury trial. Even a federal judge cannot order a jury trial if the prosecutor and defendants all waive their rights to a jury trial.
"If it's a jury trial, his problem will not be that he is a black man accused in Richmond. His problem will be his notoriety and the publicity about the charges," observed David Baugh, a highly regarded African-American attorney who has tried cases in Virginia for 32 years both as a prosecutor and a defense lawyer.
Baugh added, "It will be difficult to find jurors who have not heard about the dogs and what was done to them. Many possible jurors will have made up their minds just hearing about what was done to the dogs."
Baugh and others also explained that the jury pool for Vick's trial will include citizens from a large area of Virginia ranging from Williamsburg through Richmond to Fredericksburg.
"There will be a few jurors from urban areas, but most of the members of the venire [pool of potential jurors] will be from rural and suburban areas," observed another experienced defense attorney who requested anonymity because of other cases pending in the Richmond courthouse. "The vast majority of the jurors will be white."
Although it is unusual for federal prosecutors to insist on a jury trial when the accused is willing to allow a judge to decide guilt or innocence, the lawyers contacted by ESPN.com agreed that the prosecutors in Richmond may insist on a jury trial.
"The charges in the indictment are borderline pornographic in their brutality," said one defense lawyer. "All of the jury appeal is on the side of the prosecutors. There is no reason for them to give that away in a case that everyone is watching."
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.
Whether Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and his co-defendants will have their dogfighting case heard by a jury, or solely by a judge, is a key component of the federal case against them, writes ESPN.com's Lester Munson.