The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/11/07
Richmond, Va. — Michael Vick only recently owned up to executing pit bulls, but it was too late for his sentencing judge, who threw the book at the fallen NFL star on Monday.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson sentenced the suspended Falcons quarterback to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting operation - a term at least five months longer than what Vick would have received had he been truthful.
Hudson found that Vick had lied to federal authorities. And those lies bit him.
After pleading guilty in August, Vick continued to contend that others, not he, killed pit bulls that did not test well as fighting dogs. But in October, after being grilled by an FBI agent for five hours, Vick finally spilled the truth that he "hung" a dog.
During that interview an FBI polygrapher found Vick was being deceptive in denying he killed dogs. After Vick's lawyer, Billy Martin, was told this, he asked Vick about the failed test. At that moment, Martin told Hudson, Vick broke down.
"I did it all," Vick said, Martin related. "I did everything. If you need me to say more, I'll say more."
Additionally, the judge found that Vick lied about testing positive for marijuana in September.
At the close of the 45-minute sentencing hearing, Vick apologized to Hudson, his own family and his children.
But Hudson quickly interjected, "You need to apologize to the millions of young people who looked up to you."
"Yes, sir," Vick answered contritely. "I'm willing to deal with the consequences and accept responsibility for my actions," Vick said.
But Hudson found that Vick had not fully accepted responsibility for all he had done as part of Bad Newz Kennels, the dogfighting organization that was run with three co-defendants, out of property Vick owned in Surry County, Virginia. Vick also played a major role by "promoting, funding and facilitating this cruel and inhumane sporting activity," the judge said.
Rarely has such a popular sports star fallen so fast and so hard. A year ago, Vick was the NFL's highest-paid player, the league's most electrifying quarterback and the face of the Falcons franchise. Thousands of fans across the metro area wore his No. 7 jersey.
On Monday, the depth of Vick's descent was clear the moment he walked into court wearing a black-and-white striped prison jumpsuit but no handcuffs. Three of Vick's fans wearing No. 7 jerseys attended the hearing. On the sidewalk outside, dozens held up People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals placards with pictures of mauled dogs, including some that read: "Report Dogfighters!" and "Dogs Deserve Justice."
Shortly before the hearing began, Vick's mother, Brenda Boddie, sitting behind her son, began sobbing and was escorted outside the courtroom by Vick's brother. She returned, but broke down again, putting her head on Marcus Vick's shoulder after Hudson imposed the 23-month prison term.
Vick, 27, also received three years' probation during which he can not buy, sell or own dogs. Vick was also ordered to pay $928,073 as restitution for the 53 dogs seized from his property. He turned himself in early a month ago and is now incarcerated at a regional jail in Warsaw, Va. Once in federal prison, Vick can cut his sentence by 15 percent with good behavior. This means he could serve only 19-1/2 months behind bars and could be released in May 2009, a month before his 30th birthday.
Under terms of a plea agreement reached in August, federal sentencing guidelines called for Vick to be sentenced between 12-18 months in prison. Moreover, federal prosecutors had agreed to recommend Vick be sentenced to the low end of that guideline range.
But at the outset of the hearing, Hudson noted that a U.S. probation officer determined Vick had not accepted responsibility and was recommending an enhanced sentencing range of between 18 months and two years in prison.
"The crux of the issue," as Hudson put it, was whether Vick fully admitted killing pit bulls.
Vick initially told authorities his co-defendants carried out the executions — Quanis Phillips hung dogs and Purnell Peace drowned them, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gill said. "[Vick] denied actually having hands-on involvement in the killing of dogs."
But when Vick's co-defendants said otherwise, prosecutors confronted Vick with this in October and asked him if he wanted to reconsider his position.
"He would not," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gill told Hudson.
On Oct. 12, Vick was interviewed for five hours by an FBI agent and given a polygraph test, which found he was being deceptive. At the end of the test, Vick finally acknowledged killing a dog.
"I carried a dog over to Quanis Phillips, who tied a rope around its neck," Vick told the polygrapher, according to Gill. "I dropped the dog."
Vick later admitted killing two dogs, Hudson said during the hearing.
Also weighing against Vick was a positive test for marijuana in September while he was out on bond awaiting sentencing. Vick told a probation officer he smoked pot on one day and later told an FBI agent he smoked it on another day, months later, Gill said.
"He made false statements," the federal prosecutor told Hudson. "This was not an isolated event. It was a calculated effort to hide the truth from this court."
Gill added that the government was now recommending Vick be sentenced at the upper end of the guideline range.
"He got himself involved in a terrible, terrible enterprise," Gill said. "He was in this thing up to his neck."
Vick's lawyers told Hudson they believed Vick had accepted responsibility and deserved mercy.
Martin, the lead defense attorney, said Vick was trying to atone for all the wrongs he had committed.
"This was a tragic event in the life of this young man." Martin said.
He said that a psychiatrist found that Vick was clinically depressed over his arrest, the loss of more than $100 million in salary and the prospect of prison time. As for smoking pot while out on bond, "what he was attempting to do was self-medicate," Martin said.
"We believe that what Mr. Vick was doing was in no way trying to minimize, was in no way trying to hide facts from you," Martin said.
But Hudson noted that, under the law, simply pleading guilty does not mean a defendant accepts responsibility. The judge also said there were other matters where Vick had been "less than truthful or inconsistent," but he wouldn't disclose what those were.
Hudson said the court had received thousands of letters, most of which condemned dogfighting. He said he had also received mail on Vick's behalf from Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, former Atlanta Braves great Henry Aaron, boxing legend George Foreman and Vick's pastor.
John Goodwin, deputy manger for animal fighting issues for the Humane Society of the United States, said he was pleased with Vick's sentence. "I thought it was fair and sent a strong message to people to commit this crime — if you fight dogs, you're going to prison."
In an interview after the sentencing, Larry Woodward, Vick's long-time attorney, said Vick wants the chance to prove he deserves a second chance and wants people to know he will learn from his mistakes.
"I don't want anybody to pity me," Woodward said Vick told him during a recent conversation. "I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I am here where I am because of what I did."
Vick, who faces separate state charges in Surry County, Va., will speak out against dogfighting once he gets out of prison, his lawyers said. Vick also will focus his attention on trying to satisfy NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the 32 owners of NFL franchises. Vick will miss at least two seasons. The earliest he could return would be the 2009 season. However, Goodell has given no indication when he will lift his indefinite suspension, meaning he may not be able to return — should he find a team interested — until 2010.
When asked if Vick wants to play in the NFL again, Woodward answered, "Absolutely."
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