Legal odds against Vick just got much longer
By Lester Munson
A grand jury indicted Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Michael Vick on Tuesday, which at least partially answers one question that has lingered since the news first broke about an alleged dogfighting operation on property owned by Vick in Virginia: Was Vick involved? Obviously, we know now that investigators believe he was.
There are plenty of football-related issues still to be resolved about Vick's future with the Falcons and the NFL, but those might be the least of his concerns right now. Questions about his legal future abound. Here are some answers.
What do these federal charges mean for Vick?
Vick is in real trouble. He is up against the might and majesty of the U.S. government with all of its agents, all of its investigative techniques and all of its skilled prosecutors. If he has any doubts about the power and skill of the forces arrayed against him, he can call Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, or he can call Lord Conrad Black, the disgraced media mogul facing time in a federal penitentiary. If he still isn't convinced, he can call Jeff Skilling, the zillionaire former Enron CEO who is residing in a federal pen. All three of them hired brilliant (and expensive) lawyers. All three thought they could explain their way out from under federal charges. And all three were convicted. Vick can, and probably will, hire some of America's best defense lawyers, but they will face a serious battle.
Would Vick be sent to jail if he is convicted?
Yes. It's hard to imagine any other outcome. The charges are serious, and the evidence against Vick presented at trial will be nasty. The government's case includes evidence that Vick and his cohorts "tested" pit bulls for ferocity. If the dogs failed the test, the indictment charges, they were executed by hanging or drowning. In one case, with Vick present, the indictment says a dog was slammed to the ground until it was dead. In another incident, a dog was soaked with a hose, then electrocuted. Those aren't the sort of transgressions that lead to probation and community service. It's the kind of behavior that results in punishment, and the punishment will be jail time.
What is the next step for Vick?
Vick will watch to see which of his three co-defendants will be the first to make a deal with federal prosecutors. Each of them will think seriously about turning on Vick and offering testimony against him in return for less time in jail. Vick obviously is the prime target of the government effort. Prosecutors and agents will be willing to talk with his co-defendants about a deal if they are willing to help prove the case against Vick. The government indictment discloses four witnesses who already have agreed to testify against him. If all three of his co-defendants join these four witnesses against Vick, he and his lawyers might suggest that he, too, should talk to the government about a deal that would minimize his time in jail.
Vick is charged with "conspiracy" and violations of the "Travel Act." What does that mean?
The conspiracy charge will make things extra difficult for Vick and his lawyers. Under federal laws, the conspiracy charge allows federal prosecutors to link Vick to things that occurred even if he was not present. If the prosecutors can connect the four defendants, crimes committed by one of them can be used to add to the evidence against the others. It's a tricky legal procedure that prosecutors love and defense lawyers detest. The Travel Act is a device invented by Robert F. Kennedy when he was U.S. Attorney General in the early '60s. It was designed for use against organized crime and made it easier to prove cases against hoodlums. In the sports world, it was used most recently in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics bribery scandal. Federal prosecutors charged the Utah organizers under the Travel Act and proved millions of dollars in bribes. Vick, however, can take some hope from the fact that U.S. District Judge David Sam found the organizers not guilty of violating the Travel Act even though there was powerful evidence of bribery.
What was Vick's role in the dogfighting conspiracy described in the indictment?
According to the indictment, Vick was in the middle of everything from beginning to end. He purchased a vacant piece of property for $34,000, the indictment says. He then had sheds built for training dogs and staging fights and a fence erected to shield the operation from view. And finally, the indictment says, he had a two-story frame house with a basketball court put up as a residence for the people taking care of the dogs. If you believe the indictment, the Vick property had everything anyone could want in a dogfighting operation.
When would Vick's trial begin?
The federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., is the home of the nationally recognized "rocket docket." Cases move quickly in Richmond, more quickly than in any other courthouse in the federal system. Vick's lawyers will be looking for delays and for time to prepare a defense, but the trial likely would begin in a matter of four to six months.
Are the federal authorities in Richmond tough on crime?
Ask Ralph Sampson, the former NBA star. He fell behind in child support payments to seven children he had with four women, the kind of thing that ordinarily is worked out in a settlement. But instead of a settlement, Sampson found himself charged with felonies in federal court. Then, very quickly, he found himself in jail for two months on a child support charge. Yes, they're tough on crime in Richmond, and they might be particularly tough on crimes involving the torture and killing of dogs.