Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Updated: July 19, 7:56 PM ET
Legal odds against Vick just got much longer
By Lester Munson
As Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick prepares for his first court appearance next Thursday to face criminal charges from his involvement in a dogfighting operation in Virginia, questions continue to arise about the kennel, his role with it and the evidence against him.
Here are some of the questions and answers.
Of all the allegations made against Vick, what is the biggest surprise?
The biggest surprise in the federal charges against Vick is the extent of his alleged participation in a scheme that, according to the indictment, began in 2001 and continued until three months ago, which is when Vick and his cohorts are charged with the execution of eight dogs. Vick, the indictment says, was involved in every aspect of the business for more than six years. He was involved, in fact, up until a few days before the first raid on his property in late April of this year.
The government charges that he purchased dogs, that he helped train dogs, that he sponsored and hosted dogfights, that he tested dogs for their fighting ability, and that he was present when dogs that did not measure up to the group's standards were killed. Vick has insisted that he knew very little about what went on at the house he owned, but the indictment provides a picture of a man who financed and participated in every aspect of the dogfighting operation.
Vick's operation was known as "Bad Newz Kennels." Was it a successful dogfighting organization before police and federal agents began their raids?
The charges in the indictment describe 15 fights involving dogs owned by Bad Newz Kennels. In terms of wins and losses, Vick and the crew did well, winning 10 of the fights. But in terms of the purses and the bets on the fights, they were less successful. They lost a total of $37,500, according to the indictment, in their five losses. In their 10 victories, they won only $22,600. That gave them a net loss of $14,900. In a doubleheader in March of 2003, against dogs owned by someone apparently now poised to testify against Vick, they lost $23,000. Vick paid the winning owner with $23,000 in cash that Vick brought to the fights in a book bag.
There probably were other fights not specified in the charges in the indictment. There were at least 10 additional events sponsored by Vick and Bad Newz Kennels in 2003 and 2004, but we don't know which dogs won and we don't know how much money was won and lost. Overall, it does not appear to have been a profitable organization. On top of the money lost in purses and bets, Vick apparently financed the entire operation, including the construction of the sheds, the fences and the house.
In addition to the charges in the indictment, the government wants Vick to "forfeit" any proceeds "obtained" from the dogfighting operation. What do they want from him?
See the answer to the previous question. In contrast to corporate scams or crime syndicate gambling or loan sharking schemes, Vick's operation appears to have lost money. If he and his cohorts had somehow turned Bad Newz Kennels into a profit machine, then the government would be demanding forfeiture of all the profits. Vick spent large sums on the kennel and is now in the process of selling the property. It seems likely that he will sell the property for less than he spent on it, so he probably need not worry about any significant legal forfeiture.
If he is convicted, he might face a large fine -- the total possible fine according to law is $350,000. But if Vick somehow manages to preserve his football career, that fine wouldn't hurt too much.
The charges already filed against Vick are nasty and brutal enough. But is it possible that even more charges could be added as the case progresses?
It's possible, yes. Officials in Surry County, Va., insist they are continuing with their own investigation of what happened on Vick's property. They claim they may file their own charges in addition to the federal charges already filed. Commonwealth Attorney Gerald Poindexter says he will rely on a Virginia law that makes abuse of animals a felony, but it is unlikely the local authorities will act at this point. When the federal government steps in, the local authorities generally step out. Poindexter's statements might be an attempt to save face after the feds came into his county and took over the situation.
But there is the possibility of additional federal charges. Significant sums of money changed hands in Vick's dogfighting operation, according to the indictment. What was the origin, for example, of that $23,000 in cash in a book bag that Vick handed over when his dogs lost a doubleheader? The IRS will be checking. If it finds tax violations, they would be added to the indictment.
What do these federal charges mean for Vick?
Vick is in real trouble. He is up against the might and majesty of the U.S. government with all of its agents, all of its investigative techniques and all of its skilled prosecutors. If he has any doubts about the power and skill of the forces arrayed against him, he can call Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to vice president Dick Cheney, or he can call Lord Conrad Black, the disgraced media mogul facing time in a federal penitentiary. If he still isn't convinced, he can call Jeff Skilling, the zillionaire former Enron CEO who is residing in a federal pen. All three of them hired brilliant (and expensive) lawyers. All three thought they could explain their way out from under federal charges. And all three were convicted. Vick can, and probably will, hire some of America's best defense lawyers, but they will face a serious battle.
Would Vick be sent to jail if he is convicted?
Yes. It's hard to imagine any other outcome. The charges are serious, and the evidence against Vick presented at trial will be nasty. The government's case includes evidence that Vick and his cohorts "tested" pit bulls for ferocity. If the dogs failed the test, the indictment charges, they were executed by hanging or drowning. In one case, with Vick present, the indictment says a dog was slammed to the ground until it was dead. In another incident, a dog was soaked with a hose and then electrocuted. Those aren't the sort of transgressions that lead to probation and community service. It's the kind of behavior that results in punishment, and the punishment will be jail time.
What is the next step for Vick?
Vick will watch to see which of his three co-defendants will be the first to make a deal with federal prosecutors. Each of them will think seriously about turning on Vick and offering testimony against him in return for less time in jail. Vick is obviously the prime target of the government effort. Prosecutors and agents will be willing to talk with his co-defendants about a deal if they are willing to help prove the case against Vick. The government indictment discloses four witnesses who have already agreed to testify against him. If all three of his co-defendants join these four witnesses against Vick, he and his lawyers might suggest that he, too, should talk to the government about a deal that would minimize his time in jail.
Vick is charged with "conspiracy" and violations of the "Travel Act." What does that mean?
The conspiracy charge will make things extra difficult for Vick and his lawyers. Under federal laws, the conspiracy charge allows federal prosecutors to link Vick to things that occurred even if he was not present. If the prosecutors can connect the four defendants, crimes committed by one of them can be used to add to the evidence against the others. It's a tricky legal procedure that prosecutors love and defense lawyers detest. The Travel Act is a device invented by Robert F. Kennedy when he was U.S. Attorney General in the early '60s. It was designed for use against organized crime and made it easier to prove cases against hoodlums. In the sports world, it was used most recently in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics bribery scandal. Federal prosecutors charged the Utah organizers under the Travel Act and proved millions of dollars in bribes. Vick, however, can take some hope from the fact that U.S. District Judge David Sam found the organizers not guilty of violating the Travel Act even though there was powerful evidence of bribery.
What was Vick's role in the dogfighting conspiracy described in the indictment?
According to the indictment, Vick was in the middle of everything from beginning to end. He purchased a vacant piece of property for $34,000, the indictment says. He then had sheds built for training dogs and staging fights and a fence erected to shield the operation from view. And finally, the indictment says, he had a two-story frame house with a basketball court put up as a residence for the people taking care of the dogs. If you believe the indictment, the Vick property had everything anyone could want in a dogfighting operation.
When would Vick's trial begin?
The federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., is the home of the nationally recognized "rocket docket." Cases move quickly in Richmond, more quickly than in any other courthouse in the federal system. Vick's lawyers will be looking for delays and for time to prepare a defense, but the trial would likely begin in a matter of four to six months.
Are the federal authorities in Richmond tough on crime?
Ask Ralph Sampson, the former NBA star. He fell behind in child support payments to seven children he had with four women, the kind of thing that is ordinarily worked out in a settlement. But instead of a settlement, Sampson found himself charged with felonies in federal court. Then, very quickly, he found himself in jail for two months on a child support charge. Yes, they're tough on crime in Richmond, and they might be particularly tough on crimes involving the torture and killing of dogs.
ESPN.com's Lester Munson is a Chicago lawyer and journalist who has been reporting on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry for 18 years.