By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007
RICHMOND, July 26 -- They booed Michael Vick, they cheered him and some even cursed him on Thursday. It was like any game day, except Vick was nowhere near a football field.
On the day his Atlanta Falcons teammates opened training camp, Vick was at the federal courthouse here, where he pleaded not guilty to charges that he helped run a brutal dogfighting ring in southeastern Virginia.
His court appearance for the routine hearing triggered a scramble. Several hundred animal rights demonstrators almost shut down a section of downtown, holding pictures of bloody dogs and signs such as "Mike Vick Makes Us Sick." Dozens of Vick supporters were equally voluble. More than 20 television satellite trucks packed the streets. One local radio host even showed up wearing a dog suit.
Inside, Vick seemed unfazed by the attention. Wearing a blue suit, he walked slowly to the podium, put his left hand on the Bible and quietly told U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson he was "not guilty." Hudson set a Nov. 26 trial date for Vick and three other men charged with competitive dogfighting and conducting the venture across state lines.
Minutes earlier, U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis W. Dohnal ordered that Vick and his co-defendants remain free without bond in a brief hearing that reflected the charged emotions of the case. Addressing his comments to "those who are interested in this matter," Dohnal said, "Our criminal justice system is grounded on certain basic principles . . . one is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, no matter how heinous the allegations may be."
Dohnal said he had received numerous phone calls about the case, "many of which were grossly biased and obviously unfair." One woman, he said, left him a voice mail saying, "I had better do what she says or I won't be reelected."
"That was not very constructive," the judge said to laughter in the courtroom.
As he left the courthouse, Vick was greeted by loud boos from protesters across the street mixed with cheers from supporters. Just after he was driven away in a white sport-utility vehicle, his attorney read a statement from the quarterback in which he asserted his innocence and vowed to fight the charges but also apologized to his family and to his Falcons teammates.
"Michael wants the world to know that there is nowhere he would rather be right now than in training camp with his teammates," the lawyer, William R. "Billy" Martin, said before a bank of television cameras.
A federal grand jury last week indicted Vick and his associates -- Purnell Peace, Quanis Phillips and Tony Taylor -- on charges related to their alleged operation of the dogfighting ring based at a property Vick owns. The 19-page indictment said Vick was deeply involved in the operation, attending fights and paying off bets when his dogs lost. He also was accused of helping execute losing dogs by methods such as hanging, drowning and electrocution.
If convicted, Vick faces up to six years in prison. The NFL is reviewing the charges to determine whether Vick will be allowed to rejoin the Falcons and play when their regular season opens Sept. 9. On Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ordered Vick not to report to training camp pending the completion of the review.
Thursday's media frenzy began at 5 a.m., when Richmond high school teacher Cathy Coulter plopped her lawn chair outside the courthouse as the first person in line to attend the hearings. She was being paid by ESPN to reserve a spot, she said.
At 7 a.m., protesters from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals showed up. They displayed signs showing photographs of a pit bull that had been in a dogfight. The right side of its face almost had been chewed off.
"We want to make sure that people understand that the problem of dogfighting doesn't end with Michael Vick," said PETA's assistant director, Dan Shannon, who pronounced Vick "innocent until proven guilty."
Richmond radio host Brian Haddad stood on a corner, wearing a brown felt dog suit. A colleague held a sign reading "Vick Is Sick. And Not in a Cool Way."
"The dogs can't speak for themselves, so we're speaking for the dogs, as dogs ourselves," said Haddad, who was asked to bark on command by a local television reporter. He complied.
Vick's supporters were outnumbered but made their feelings known. Mike Geary drove nine hours from Braintree, Mass., to hold up a sign saying "Let Vick Play."
"He hasn't been convicted of anything yet," said Geary, who called Vick "the most exciting player in football. You never know what he's going to do next."
Shawn Dodson, of Lynchburg, Va., felt the wrath of protesters when he walked out of the courthouse after the hearings wearing a white No. 7 Vick jersey. They screamed at him and booed.
"This is crazy," Dodson said as he walked away. He said he had shown up because "I'm a Vick supporter."
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.