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Subject to interpretation

Vick's plea provides more questions than answers

Posted: Friday August 24, 2007 3:47PM; Updated: Friday August 24, 2007 4:52PM
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In a June 2000 photo shoot for a story in SI's College Preview issue, Vick was photographed with his pit bull Champagne.
In a June 2000 photo shoot for a story in SI's College Preview issue, Vick was photographed with his pit bull Champagne.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
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Read enough legal documents -- indictments, subpoenas, lawsuits -- and you begin to think of some lawyers as artists. They can write a sentence that appears simple, its point obvious, but if you read it again and again the meaning changes. It becomes more like poetry than legalese, everything subject to your own interpretation.

The statement of fact filed Friday in a federal courthouse in Richmond, Va., as part of the plea agreement for Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, is a perfect example of the duality of what one would expect to be a simple declaration of guilt. Take, for example, the troubling allegation that Vick bet on fights, said to be a big issue in the eyes of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who will decide Vick's suspension.

"Vick agrees that 'Bad Newz Kennels' business enterprise involved gambling activities in violation of the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia ... Most of the 'Bad Newz Kennels' operation and gambling monies were provided by Vick ... Vick did not gamble by placing side bets on any of the fights. Vick did not receive any of the proceeds from the purses that were won by 'Bad Newz Kennels.'"

One can read this as a clear admission that Vick bet on dogfighting. He put the money up. He lost money if his dogs lost. However, Vick says he didn't win money if his dog won. Can one be a gambler if one never takes any winnings? Defenders of Vick could argue he was simply putting up money for his friends to gamble, that he was (if this is even possible) only half a gambler.

Whether or not he placed side bets could be viewed as irrelevant because betting on the dogs alone constitutes gambling. But I have no doubt Vick's lawyers fought to get that line in the statement. It allows Vick to say he didn't bet, to deny gambling, even if he did place bets of a different sort. It's a seed of doubt for Vick supporters looking to sow a defense.

The most disturbing allegation against Vick is that he participated in the killing of dogs. In the statement of facts filed by co-defendants (and Vick friends) Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips, they said Vick helped them kill dogs last April. But in Vick's statement, it is not that clear. It states, "Peace, Phillips, and Vick agreed to the killing of approximately 6-8 dogs that did not perform well in 'testing' sessions at 1915 Moonlight Road and all of those dogs were killed by various methods, including hanging and drowning. Vick agrees and stipulates that these dogs all died as a result of the collective efforts of Peace, Phillips and Vick."

Given the earlier statements by Peace and Phillips, which both included the straightforward line, "All three participated in executing the dogs," it would seem Vick's statement of fact confirms that. But what does it mean that Vick stipulates the dogs died "as a result of the collective efforts?" Does that mean Vick merely handed a rope to Peace and Phillips? Does he mean he only turned on the hose that filled the tub the dogs were drowned in? Or, does it mean he slipped a noose around a dog's neck or held its head under water?

The goal of Vick's legal team is to distinguish his actions from the other co-defendants, to prove he was not involved in the same gritty way as Peace, Phillips and Tony Taylor.

"Our position has been that we are going to try to help Judge [Henry Hudson] understand all the facts and Michael's role," Vick's lead defense attorney, Billy Martin, said in telephone interview with the Associated Press. "Michael's role was different than others associated with this incident."

That may or may not be true. But Martin and his team have managed to enter into the record a statement of facts that includes less facts than Vick's critics wanted, that leaves the totality of Vick's role in the doings of Bad Newz Kennels unknown. As a result, while Vick's guilt is no longer in question, his level of guilt remains subject to your own interpretation.