Pressure On Vick Increases

michael vick - atlanta falcons
Prosecutors asked attorneys for Michael Vick to give them an answer by Friday, say sources, who declined to characterize the Friday request as a deadline. (Joshua Roberts - Reuters)
By Jerry Markon and Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writers and Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Michael Vick's attorneys are engaged in plea negotiations with federal prosecutors, who are pressuring the Atlanta Falcons quarterback to admit guilt in the dogfighting charges against him now that two more co-defendants have scheduled plea hearings for later this week, sources familiar with the case said yesterday.

Prosecutors asked Vick's attorneys to give them an answer by Friday, said the sources, who declined to characterize the Friday request as a deadline. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

The government said at a recent court hearing that prosecutors are preparing a new indictment with additional charges in the case, and prosecutors are expected to seek that indictment by the end of the month if there is no plea deal with Vick.

As of yesterday afternoon, no plea deal was imminent, and Vick's representatives declined to comment on the talks. "I don't think we're going to make any statements on that," said Christopher Garrett, a spokesman for Vick's Washington-based attorney, William R. Martin.

One source said last night that the plea agreement being discussed would involve a year or less of jail time for Vick and, if it's accepted, would be designed by Vick's legal team to ensure his release from jail while he's still young enough to play football.

NFL officials said they were not involved in any conversations with Vick's lawyers about what disciplinary action the league would take if Vick pleads guilty.

"We have had no such discussions," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. "The commissioner will wait until he has all the facts before making a decision on Michael Vick's status."

Vick's two remaining co-defendants, Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips, are scheduled to enter pleas later this week in U.S. District Court in Richmond, according to the court's docket. Peace's hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, while Phillips is slated to stand before a judge Friday. Any scheduled plea deal can collapse, even at the last minute.

The other co-defendant in the case, Tony Taylor, pleaded guilty last month and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. If Vick finds all three other defendants lined up against him, he may conclude that continuing to fight the charges is futile, legal experts said yesterday.

"If he's guilty, this would put an incredible amount of pressure on him to accept responsibility and put together his plea for an appropriate sentence," said Steven D. Benjamin, a Richmond lawyer and past president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "You don't mess around in a federal courtroom. These are serious charges with serious consequences."

But some experts cautioned that Vick could still decide to roll the dice with a jury, banking on his celebrity and popularity as a sports hero who grew up in Virginia. "He could be hoping for some kind of miracle," Benjamin said. "It may just be his personality."

Vick, 27, and his co-defendants are charged with operating a dogfighting ring based at a property owned by Vick in southeastern Virginia. The indictment portrays Vick as an active member of the venture who attended and even traveled to dogfights, paid debts for bets on fights and participated in the killing of dogs that didn't perform well. Vick pleaded not guilty in a Richmond courtroom last month and is scheduled to stand trial Nov. 26.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ordered Vick not to report to training camp with the Falcons last month and his teammates began preparing for the season on the same day their standout quarterback was entering his not guilty plea. Falcons officials and players have said they are preparing for the season as if Vick won't be playing.

Goodell assigned District lawyer Eric H. Holder Jr., a former U.S. deputy attorney general, to oversee the league's review of the case that is to determine Vick's playing status. Holder's report is not scheduled to be delivered to Goodell until next week at the earliest, league officials have said.

Goodell toughened the league's personal conduct policy for players in April and has handed out several lengthy suspensions in an effort to eliminate criminal behavior by players, which the league fears could scare away its business partners. The policy empowers Goodell to fine, suspend or impose a lifetime ban on an offending player, and it does not require Goodell to wait until a player is convicted of a crime. Goodell has said he instructed Holder to determine if there are indisputable facts in the Vick case that would constitute violations of the conduct policy and warrant punishment by the NFL before the legal process plays out.

In some cases involving NFL players, lawyers have talked to league officials about the severity of possible league punishments while negotiating plea deals. According to league officials, that is not happening in this case, although Goodell and other league officials are said to be monitoring developments closely.

Falcons officials have not ruled out releasing Vick, and a guilty plea or a conviction could lead the team to attempt to retrieve a portion of the $37 million in guaranteed bonus money paid to him in a 10-year, $130 million contract extension signed in 2004.

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