By Jerry Markon and Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
RICHMOND, Dec. 10 -- Suspended Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced Monday to a tougher-than-expected 23-month prison term after prosecutors revealed that he admitted to hanging two dogs as part of an illegal dogfighting ring.
Vick, 27, had denied for months that he was personally involved in the killing of the animals, and his conflicting statements were a factor in the more severe sentence.
U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson said he was concerned about Vick's lack of candor about his role in executing the dogs and also about his smoking marijuana. Prosecutors said Vick had violated the terms of his plea agreement by failing to be truthful and should receive a longer sentence than the 12 to 18 months they had originally recommended.
Hudson agreed. Although he praised Vick's community service and said he had received numerous letters on the quarterback's behalf -- including from boxer George Foreman and baseball slugger Hank Aaron -- Hudson said Vick had not been forthcoming with the government and was "instrumental" in the dogfighting ring based on his property in southeastern Virginia.
"You were a full participant, and you were at least equally culpable with every other man sentenced in this case," Hudson told Vick.
Moments earlier, Vick apologized to the judge, his family and his children. "I made some bad judgments along the way," he told the court. "I hope that one day when this is all over that I can show everybody that Michael Vick is not the person you see or hear about in the media."
The judge responded: "I think you should have apologized also to the millions of young people who look up to you."
The federal court hearing, which ended a case that caused the fall from grace of a star athlete in his prime, was more subdued than Vick's earlier court appearances. Fewer than 50 animal rights activists waited across the street from the courthouse, quietly holding signs. Vick, wearing a black and white prison jumpsuit because he voluntarily began serving his expected time several weeks ago, spoke in a barely audible voice and held his head in his hands after the hearing.
Although the sentencing might have ended the federal proceedings, it left uncertain whether Vick will return to the NFL. He has missed this season and will now be out all of next season. His federal sentence could stretch until October 2009.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank, in a taped interview shown on the team's Web site, said he would "never use the word 'never.' I would say there's always a chance." But Blank added: "Quite candidly, we as an organization, as a football team, have to look forward. . . . We have to assume Michael's not going to be back [and] going to be out of football for three full years."
Around the NFL Monday, opinion about Vick's return was split. One official with another team said: "He's going to be, what, 29 or 30 and out of the league for two or three years by then. Life goes on. I just don't see him playing again."
But another team official said: "He's a unique talent. If the public forgives and forgets, some team will give him a chance to show what he can do." Both team officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of Vick's situation.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Vick indefinitely just before he entered his guilty plea in August. The league has not said how it will determine the final length of Vick's suspension.
Vick and his co-defendants -- Tony Taylor, Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips -- each pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy count for operating Bad Newz Kennels, the dogfighting venture they started in 2001 in Surry County. In court papers, Vick admitted that he agreed to the killing of six to eight dogs through the "collective efforts" of him and his co-conspirators, but he did not admit in those papers to actually participating in the killings.
For months, Vick stuck to that story, according to court testimony Monday, denying in several sessions with FBI agents that he had personally killed dogs, even though several of his co-defendants had said otherwise. In October, prosecutors told Vick that they didn't believe him, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gill said in court Monday.
On Oct. 12, FBI agents administered a polygraph test during which Vick initially stuck to his denials but "finally admitted" that he and Phillips had hanged two dogs, Gill said. "I carried the dogs over to Phillips, Phillips tied a rope around their necks and I dropped the dogs," Gill quoted Vick as telling the agents.
Vick's attorney, William R. "Billy" Martin, cast Vick's admissions during the five-hour FBI interrogation in a different light. "I think, Judge, that at that point, Michael sort of broke down," he said in court. "He simply said, 'I did it all; I did everything.' I think the frustration Mr. Vick expressed was, 'What do I have to do? If you need me to say more, I'll say more.' " By Martin's account, Vick knew the two dogs were going to be killed because they had performed poorly in the fights. "Mr. Vick went over and got a dog, brought a dog to Mr. Phillips, handed the dog to Mr. Phillips and that was when the dog was killed."
An attorney for Phillips, who was sentenced to 21 months in prison, did not return calls.
Hudson said Vick's lack of candor -- about the executions of the dogs and the date on which he smoked marijuana after his guilty plea -- led a probation officer to recommend a sentence of 18 to 24 months in prison, up from a previous 12- to 18-month recommendation. On Monday, prosecutors urged a sentence at the high end of that range, while defense attorneys urged a term at the lower end.
Linda Malone, a law professor at the College of William and Mary who has followed the case, said Vick got the tougher sentence because prosecutors and the judge felt Vick didn't live up to the terms of his plea agreement. "They obviously didn't feel that he was fully forthcoming and cooperative," she said.
After Monday's hearing, Martin said Vick accepted the sentence. "If Michael Vick gets another chance, either in society or in the NFL, he will take advantage of it," Martin said.
Vick still faces state charges in Virginia.
U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said the case had "exposed a seamy side of our society," and he trusts that Vick "learned important lessons and that his admission of guilt will speed his rehabilitation."
Maske reported from Washington.