In an agreement on a guilty plea filed Friday in federal court in Richmond, Va., Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick acknowledged participation in a dogfighting ring that matched pit bulls in combat — and sometimes executed those that didn't measure up.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reacted swiftly to the details of Vick's plea agreement, suspending the Atlanta Falcons quarterback indefinitely late Friday afternoon. On July 23, Goodell had ordered Vick not to attend Falcons training camp.
"Your admitted conduct was not only illegal, but also cruel and reprehensible. Your team, the NFL, and NFL fans have all been hurt by your actions," Goodell wrote in a letter to Vick that was echoed by comments from Falcons owner Arthur Blank.
While Vick's plea agreement admitted he funded gambling on the dogfights, Vick said he did not personally pocket the winnings or make side bets. That distinction carried no weight with Goodell.
"Even if you personally did not place bets, as you contend, your actions in funding the betting and your association with illegal gambling both violate the terms of your NFL player contract and expose you to corrupting influences in derogation of one of the most fundamental responsibilities of an NFL player," Goodell wrote.
And while Vick said he was aware dogs were executed and that he played a "collective" role in that, he did not admit personally killing any.
Vick still must appear in court to enter his plea in a hearing Monday at 10:30 a.m. ET in Richmond before U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson.
The judge must formally accept the plea agreement.
"But there's no reason for the judge not to accept the agreement because it doesn't bind the judge to anything," said Washington, D.C., attorney Barry Boss.
That includes sentencing.
PLEA AGREEMENT: Read it here (PDF)
SUMMARY OF FACTS: Read it here (PDF)
As the plea agreements by two of Vick's co-defendants did a week earlier, the deal between Vick's attorneys and federal prosecutors called for a recommended sentencing guideline of 12-18 months in prison.
"Sometimes, the plea agreement binds the judge. You can bind the judge if the parties agree (for example) that the sentence will be six months," said Boss, former co-chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission's Practitioners Advisory Group.
"Then there is a real risk the judge will reject the plea agreement because the judge doesn't want to be bound to six months."
FIND MORE STORIES IN: NFL | Va | Michael Vick | Atlanta Falcons
But he noted the Vick agreement contains only a recommended sentencing guideline.
ATHLETES IN JAIL: Vick could be next
"The judge is free to accept or reject it (the guidelines), so there's no reason the judge would ever reject this plea agreement," said Boss.
Vick agreed to plead guilty to the same one-count indictment that his three co-defendants pleaded guilty to earlier.
It alleges conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture. The initial July 17 indictment stemmed from the alleged operation of Bad Newz Kennels on property formerly owned by Vick in Smithfield, Va.
"The defendant will plead guilty because the defendant is in fact guilty of the charged offense," said the plea agreement signed by Vick, his attorneys and prosecutors.
As did previous plea agreements in the case, Vick's summary said the gambling proceeds were split by the co-defendants: Purnell Peace, 35, of Virginia Beach; Quanis Phillips, 28, of Atlanta; and Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton, Va.
"Vick did not gamble by placing side bets on any of the fights. Vick did not receive any of the proceeds from the purses," said Vick's summary.
The document also said in the summer of 2002 he was "aware Phillips, Peace, and Taylor killed a number of dogs that did not perform well" in testing. The document said, "Vick did not kill any dogs at this time."
Vick also acknowledged that in April of this year, he, Peace and Phillips tested dogs by putting them through fighting sessions. Vick's summary said the three "agreed to the killing of 6-8 dogs that did not perform well" and that they were killed by such methods as hanging and drowning.
"Vick agrees and stipulates that these dogs all died as a result of the collective efforts of Peace, Phillips and Vick," the summary said.
The document did not specify whether "collective efforts" meant Vick personally hanged or drowned any dogs.
"The fact that he is agreeing and stipulating … that these dogs died as a result of his efforts along with these other guys, I think that's going to be pretty damning for him," said Dan Shannon, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA),
Shannon noted that in the plea agreements by Phillips and Peace, the phrase "collective efforts" also appears in describing the killings in April of this year.
"It (the document filed Friday) doesn't come right out and say that Michael Vick killed the dogs with his bare hands," said Shannon.
"I think that's just the language they use to describe this sort of thing in a document of this nature. And I think the implication is that Michael Vick was definitely involved at a hands-on level."
Meanwhile, Goodell said he will review the status of the suspension after conclusion of the legal proceedings.
"I will take into account a number of factors, including the resolution of any other charges that may be brought against you, whether in Surry County, Virginia, or other jurisdictions, your conduct going forward, the specifics of the sentence imposed by Judge Hudson and any related findings he might make, and the extent to which you are truthful and cooperative with law enforcement and league staff who are investigating these matters," Goodell wrote.
He also said in his letter to Vick that he had advised the Falcons that they now are now "free to assert any claims or remedies available to them" under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement and his individual contract.
Falcons owner Blank, who signed Vick to a 10-year, $130 million contract in December 2004, issued a statement supporting Goodell's swift action late Friday.
"As with other actions he has taken this year, the commissioner is making a strong statement that conduct which tarnishes the good reputation of the NFL will not be tolerated.
"We hope that Michael will use this time, not only to further address his legal matters, but to take positive steps to improve his personal life."
Source: USA Today