RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Standing erect and answering questions with
soft, short responses, NFL star Michael Vick pleaded guilty Monday
to a federal dogfighting charge and awaited a Dec. 10 sentencing date that could send him to prison.
The plea by the suspended Atlanta Falcons quarterback was accepted by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, who asked: "Are you entering the plea of guilty to a conspiracy charge because you are in fact guilty?"
Vick replied, "Yes, sir."
Hudson emphasized during the 15-minute hearing he is not bound by sentencing guidelines or the recommendations of prosecutors and can impose the maximum sentence of up to five years in prison. Prosecutors proposed a 12- to 18-month prison term.
"You're taking your chances here. You'll have to live with whatever decision I make," Hudson.
Vick's lead attorney, Billy Martin, said his client would discuss his plea at a news conference.
"A first-time offender might well receive no jail time for this offense," U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said in a statement. "We thought, however, that the conduct in this conspiracy was heinous, cruel and inhumane" so three of the four defendants, including Vick, should receive harsher sentences.
The first defendant to plead guilty left the conspiracy in 2004 and is not as culpable, he said.
In his written plea filed in federal court Friday, Vick admitted helping kill six to eight pit bulls and supplying money for gambling on the fights. He said he did not personally place any bets or share in any winnings.
The NFL suspended him indefinitely and without pay Friday after
his plea agreement was filed. Merely associating with gamblers can
trigger a lifetime ban under the league's personal conduct policy.
The case began in late April when authorities conducting a drug investigation of Vick's cousin raided the former Virginia Tech star's rural Surry County property and seized dozens of dogs, some injured, and equipment commonly used in dogfighting.
A federal indictment issued in July charged Vick, Purnell Peace of Virginia Beach, Quanis Phillips of Atlanta and Tony Taylor of Hampton with an interstate dogfighting conspiracy. Vick initially denied any involvement, and all four men pleaded innocent. Taylor was the first to change his plea to guilty; Phillips and Peace soon followed.
The details outlined in the indictment and other court papers fueled a public backlash against Vick and cost him several lucrative endorsement deals, even before he agreed to plead guilty.
In announcing the suspension, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell
opened the way for the Falcons to attempt to recover $22 million of
Vick's signing bonus from the 10-year, $130 million contract he
signed in 2004.
Vick's plea Monday came hours before the Falcons play an exhibition game at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. This will be the first chance for the team to see what effect Vick's case has on attendance at the Georgia Dome. Vick wears the biggest-selling jersey in team history and is given much credit for the team's 51 consecutive sellouts.
After initially denying his involvement, Vick has said little publicly about the case. Privately, he met with Goodell and Falcons owner Arthur Blank when the investigation was just beginning, and almost certainly lied to both.
Associated Press Writers Zinie Chen Sampson and Dionne Walker contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)