Vick’s sentence may depend on his level of cooperation

By Tim McGlone, The Virginian-Pilot – August 22, 2007

Michael Vick faced little chance of defeating the federal government had he chosen to take his dogfighting case to trial, and now, after deciding to plead guilty, he may help authorities take down other dogfighting rings, legal experts say.

As part of his plea deal, Vick will be debriefed by federal and state investigators. The level of his cooperation could take time off his prison term, the experts say.

Norfolk defense attorney Hunter W. Sims Jr., a former federal prosecutor, said the authorities will be expecting a lot from Vick and three co-defendants who already have pleaded guilty.

“He’s going to have to list everybody,”Simssaid.“They’re looking for anyone else with star status or name recognition.”

Vick, the 27-year-old Newport News native and Atlanta Falcons star, has agreed to plead guilty to a felony conspiracy charge on Mondayin federal court in Richmond. He is expected to admit that he financed and participated in a dogfighting ring based at his Surry County property.

Prosecutors will be seeking a prison term of at least one year, but the final decision rests with U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson.

Had he chosen to go to trial, Vick would have been up against a U.S. Attorney’s Office that had a 92 percent conviction rate last year in cases heard by juries. Had he not accepted the plea deal, prosecutors said they would have indicted Vick on more serious charges that would have carried a stiffer prison term.

“The bottom line is, he can deal with a year to 18 months,” Sims said. “If he goes away for four or five years, that’s a whole different kettle of fish.”

By pleading guilty, Vick will be in a better position to repair his reputation and his future, the experts said.

“Your cooperation has to lead to something like an arrest or conviction, in most cases, to justify” a cut in the sentence, said Barry Boss, a federal defense attorney in Washington who has served on a U.S. Sentencing Commission advisory panel.

Vick also could help himself by teaming with an animal welfare group, performing public service announcements against dogfighting and donating money to related charities, all options Vick’s lawyers say they are considering.

“That could look good to a judge. It’s limited only by the imagination of his lawyers,” said Virginia Beach lawyer and legal analyst L. Steven Emmert.

“He probably will, with the guidance of his counsel, be able to paint a much more favorable impression than what’s in the media right now,” Emmert said.

Prosecutors will be seeking a prison term of at least one year.

John Goodwin, who runs the animal cruelty campaign for The Humane Society, hopes the cooperation of Vick and his co-defendants will lead to prosecutions of other dogfighting operations.

“He’ll have to pony up information,” Goodwin said.

The exposure of the Vick case has already led to significant leads and arrests in unrelated cases, he said.

“We are definitely getting a good number of calls from constituents and citizens in the community reporting signs of dogfighting,” Goodwin said. “We’re also seeing more dogfighting arrests.”

Staff writer Dave Forster contributed to this report.