New York Jets draft pick Kenrick Ellis, originally scheduled to stand trial next Tuesday in Hampton, Va., for felony assault, received a continuance and was rescheduled for Nov. 28, an official from the Hampton Circuit court said Friday.
Because that would occur in the middle of the season, assuming the NFL's labor dispute is settled, Ellis' recently-hired attorney likely will request another continuance. That would push the case into next offseason at the earliest.
Ellis was indicted a month before the April draft on the charge of malicious wounding, a Class 3 felony in Virginia. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
A potential complication is that Ellis is not a U.S. citizen, ESPNNewYork.com has learned. Ellis, a native of Jamaica who moved to Florida at the age of 11, has "permanent resident" status. A permanent resident convicted of an aggravated felony is deportable, according to immigration law.
Because of the enormous stakes, Ellis' best move is to negotiate a plea bargain before he gets to court, according to three immigration lawyers contacted by ESPNNewYork.com. That, they agreed, is the likely outcome.
The key is to make sure that any plea arrangement isn't classified as an aggravated assault and carries less than a one-year sentence, suspended or otherwise, according to Virginia-based immigration attorney Bill Kovatch.
"There's a reason (for the Jets) to be worried ... because if it's an aggravated felony, there's nothing that can be done," said Kovatch, who doesn't represent Ellis. "He gets deported and there's no waiver."
The Jets, who said at the time of the draft that they were "comfortable" with the risk after investigating Ellis and the incident, declined to comment Friday on the potential ramifications of the case because it's still pending. Ellis, a 6-foot-5, 345-pound nose tackle, was selected in the third round.
Ellis was arrested April 12, 2010, by the Hampton University police department, a few days after he allegedly attacked another man, identified in court records as Dennis Eley, a student at Hampton.
Details are sketchy because the school won't release the arrest report. A school spokesperson denied ESPNNewYork.com's request, claiming it's part of an ongoing investigation by the district attorney and that Hampton isn't subject to the Freedom of Information Act because it's a private institution.
The DA's office declined to comment, and Ellis' lawyer, Tim Clancy, didn't return multiple phone messages.
People close to Ellis have said that Eley harassed his girlfriend and came after him with a baseball bat, prompting the lineman to act in self-defense.
A month after the indictment, Eley filed a civil suit, asking for $3 million in damages. According to the lawsuit, obtained by ESPNNewYork.com, Ellis attacked Eley without provocation at a secluded location on campus, breaking his nose and his jaw in two places. Eley required two surgeries, the suit claims.
Ellis has yet to be served with the suit, Eley's lawyer said Friday. The lawyer, S. Howard Woodson, said there have been "preliminary" discussions with Ellis' attorney regarding a possible financial settlement. Woodson said Eley was forced to drop out of school because of the injuries and is now working in the Washington, D.C. area.
Because of the pending charge, and because he was previously dismissed from the South Carolina team for failing multiple drug tests, Ellis was deemed a draft risk. A general manager from another team, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said his team shied away from Ellis because of the criminal charge and its potential ramifications on his residency status.
"That was big for us," the GM said. "It's a pain in the tail, the whole legal issue."
A person that commits a crime of "moral turpitude" is deportable, according to immigration law. It's a broad and subjective term that can be used for any crime that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services deems offensive, but it usually refers to a vile and depraved act, done with reckless, malicious or evil intent.
One big factor in Ellis' favor: He has been a permanent resident for more than five years. Even if he's convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, as long as it's a misdemeanor -- a sentence less than one year -- it won't affect his residency status, Kovatch said. But a repeat offense, he said, would make him deportable.
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com.