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Moving forward

What's next for Vick after formally pleading guilty?

Posted: Monday August 27, 2007 5:35PM; Updated: Monday August 27, 2007 5:59PM
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1. What is the legal significance of Michael Vick pleading guilty?

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By pleading guilty, Michael Vick admits to committing the criminal charges alleged by the government, that he raises no defenses, and that he is prepared for his punishment.

As is practice, Judge Henry Hudson had to confirm that Vick voluntarily pled and that he was not coerced into doing so. A guilty plea can be interpreted as an act of contrition or, more cynically, that the defendant realizes that he cannot persuade a jury.

Far less meaningful, Vick's plea also saves taxpayers thousands of dollars in avoided court costs, and helps to free up the court's case docket. A guilty plea is often confused with a plea of no contest (nolo contendre), but they possess different legal meanings: unlike a guilty plea, a plea of no contest does not admit guilt, though both pleas indicate that a defendant is prepared for his punishment.

2. What can we expect when Judge Hudson sentences Vick on Dec. 10?

Vick faces up to five years in federal prison. Conceivably, Judge Hudson -- who grimly admonished Vick, "You're taking your chances here. You'll have to live with whatever decision I make" -- could impose such a sentence. Moreover, Vick's involvement with the horrific treatment of dogs clearly works against him, as judges are like any of us: we are outraged by the outrageous.

But there are several factors weighing in Vick's favor as Judge Hudson contemplates his sentence. Most important, prosecutors recommend that Vick serve between 12 and 18 months in prison, a significantly lower figure than the possible maximum of 60 months. Although judges occasionally impose a harsher sentence than prosecutors recommend, they typically do not.

Vick also puts himself in better company as a first-time offender. Generally, repeat offenders receive harsher sentences, under the basic idea that the defendant didn't learn his lesson the first time. Such a concern is not present with a first-time offender like Vick. Amplifying that point are comments by U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who acknowledged in a statement today that "a first-time offender might well receive no jail time for this offense."

Vick's unmistakable expressions of contrition, shame, and remorse also work in his favor. While their genuineness may be questioned, his comments today were among the most apologetic remarks ever heard by a professional athlete. Nevertheless, given what Vick claims to be sorry for, Judge Hudson will almost certainly not feel good about Vick at any point while he deliberates his sentence. But the goal of a defendant's expressed contrition is usually sentence mitigation, rather than sentence elimination. Indeed, to the extent he found Vick sincere, Judge Hudson may be somewhat swayed by Vick's remarks.

Along the lines of his remarks, Vick's very decision to plead guilty should aid him. While, as noted above, a guilty plea can be interpreted as an expression of guilt or merely one of defeat, judges generally consider a guilty plea to be a sign that a defendant already understands his need for correction and is more malleable to immediate improvement while incarcerated.

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