Striking a deal or going to trial? Both have risks
By BILL RANKIN
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 07/20/07
Michael Vick could wage an all-out assault on the federal conspiracy case that alleges he was in the thick of a dogfighting operation with high-stakes gambling and the killing of pit bulls.
The best resolution for the Falcons quarterback would be an acquittal that keeps him out of prison, keeps him on the playing field and clears his name. But if Vick's legal team comes to believe the federal case is too strong to fight, Vick must try and strike a deal, veteran defense attorneys say. If he chooses this route, Vick must engage in delicate â€” some say potentially perilous â€” negotiations with federal prosecutors, the NFL and Falcons ownership to keep his freedom and his $130 million contract.
The wild card is U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson in Richmond, who presides over the case and does not have to follow the prosecution's recommendation. Hudson is known as a judge who will increase a defendant's punishment when circumstances call for it.
If convicted at trial, Vick faces almost certain prison time. The conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although federal sentencing guidelines will call for a shorter prison term because Vick has no prior convictions.
Over the past decade, there have been few federal prosecutions of dogfighting operations, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group at Syracuse University. Most dogfighting prosecutions are brought locally by district attorneys.
The only other federal case brought in Virginia resulted in prison time against Phillip William "Fat Bill" Reynolds. Reynolds pleaded guilty in 2001 to engaging in dogfighting ventures and sending photos and videos depicting animal cruelty.
At sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Bondurant asked for a prison term to deter others who "engage in the mutilation of these dogs."
The judge involved in that case, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Wilson in Roanoke, said he was "shocked" by the "insensitivity to life" that comes with dogfighting. He then sentenced Reynolds to 30 months in prison.
Pat Gardner, who represented Reynolds, said Vick could receive similar treatment if prosecutors can prove he was actively involved in a dogfighting operation.
"If he gets convicted, the prosecutors will start showing gruesome photographs and maybe even videos at his sentencing," Gardner said. "It's going to be tough for him."
Bondurant, in a recent telephone interview, said Reynolds received serious prison time because he showed the judge how cruel and degrading dogfighting is. "These guys have to be wired a little bit different to enjoy this sort of thing," Bondurant said.
Federal prosecutors in Austin, Texas, charged more than a dozen individuals in a number of dogfighting cases in the late 1990s. About a half-dozen defendants received prison time, ranging from one month to one year behind bars, U.S. Attorney's Office spokesman Daryl Fields said.
In federal court, sentencing guidelines greatly influence how severe â€” or lenient â€” the ultimate punishment will be. They allow a sentence to be enhanced, for example, if a defendant takes the witness stand, denies the allegations and is then convicted.
But the guidelines also favor defendants who accept responsibility for their actions as quickly as possible and who agree to cooperate by testifying against co-defendants or assisting in a broader investigation.
Criminal defense attorneys who have examined the 18-page indictment â€” which is chock-full of details about fights, bets and dogs, including their names and gender â€” said they suspect Vick's lawyer, Lawrence Woodward, is already exploring those options. They also suggest lawyers for Vick's three co-defendants could be weighing them as well. A well-worn adage in criminal defense is that the first person to the courthouse door often gets the best deal.
Woodward has not returned phone calls seeking comment.
If Vick is found guilty at trial or pleads guilty, the severity of his sentence will depend on which part of the conspiracy he is convicted of, said Atlanta defense attorney Steve Sadow, an expert of the sentencing guidelines.
Vick faces a single count that charges him with conspiring to violate three laws: the interstate travel act by crossing state lines to engage in illegal gambling; sponsoring a dog in an animal fighting venture; and buying, transporting and receiving dogs for animal fighting.
If Vick is convicted of conspiracy to engage in illegal gambling, the federal guidelines call for a sentence of between 10 and 16 months, Sadow said, noting the sentence can be split with a term of prison and home confinement. If Vick were to plead guilty and accept responsibility for this offense, Sadow said, his potential sentence under the guidelines would drop to six to 12 months.
If Vick is convicted only of conspiring to violate either of the two dogfighting laws, the guidelines call for a sentence of no more than six months, Sadow said. This time could be served on probation, home detention or in a halfway house.
A potential problem for Vick is a 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down the mandatory sentencing guidelines, making them only advisory. This means if Hudson, the judge assigned to Vick's case, wants to impose a harsher sentence, he can do it.
If Vick wants to strike a deal, his best course of action may be to try and get prosecutors to sign off on what is known as a binding plea agreement, which specifies the sentence that must be imposed, Sadow said. If the judge accepts the agreement, that is the sentence Vick would get; if the judge rejects it, Vick could withdraw his plea and go to trial.
But Vick needs to keep in mind that if one of his three co-defendants decides to cooperate with the prosecution before he does, "his value to the government and the benefits to be derived will be seriously undermined," Sadow said.
Atlanta lawyer Jerry Froelich, who represented NFL running back Jamal Lewis in a federal drug case brought in Atlanta, said if a deal is broached, the NFL and the Falcons must be made aware of what is going on. Froelich said he sat down with then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue when he helped broker a plea agreement that called for a four-month prison term for Lewis. The NFL later suspended him for two games.
"If everything works out, it becomes a business decision," Froelich said. "Unfortunately for Vick, his case involves a very emotional issue â€” the killing of dogs. That makes it much more difficult
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