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Analyzing the Vick sentence

The reason behind ruling, how long he'll serve, more

Posted: Monday December 10, 2007 1:07PM; Updated: Monday December 10, 2007 2:15PM
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After receiving a 23-month sentence on Monday, Michael Vick will be away from the NFL until at least October 2009.
After receiving a 23-month sentence on Monday, Michael Vick will be away from the NFL until at least October 2009.

On Monday, Judge Henry E. Hudson sentenced Michael Vick to 23 months in prison -- exceeding the 12-18 months that prosecutors recommended. SI.com caught up with legal expert Michael McCann to answer some important questions about the ruling.

1) Why did the judge exceed the prosecutors' recommendation?

There are several possible explanations for why Michael Vick's sentence is so long and why it eclipses the sentences of two of Vick's co-defendants, Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips, who last month received sentences of 18 months and 21 months, respectively.

One explanation is that U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson believes that Vick played a greater role in the organizing of the dog fights and the torture and killing of the dogs than his plea bargain suggested. After all, the dog fighting operation required funding, and it appears that Vick provided it. In addition, depending on how one reads the plea agreement, Vick may have personally killed and tortured dogs.

Another explanation is that Judge Hudson resented Vick's behavior following the plea deal. In September, Vick violated the stipulation in his pretrial release that he refrain from use or unlawful possession of a narcotic drug or other controlled substance.

Judge Hudson may have also been influenced by a pre-sentencing report filed by a U.S. probation officer who reviewed Vick's case. Though not binding on Judge Hudson, the report likely proved influential since it examined the totality and context of Vick's involvement in the dog fighting operation. In that respect, it may have been more influential than the amorphous phraseology contained in Vick's plea agreement, which was signed by him, his counsel, and the prosecution.

No matter the reasoning behind Judge Hudson's sentence, it's surprisingly severe for a first-time criminal, charged with crimes that some observers believe are routinely ignored by law enforcement officers, and whom prosecutors recommended not be sentenced to more than 18 months. Still, it is within Judge Hudson's discretion, as he could have sentenced Vick to up to 60 months.

2) Did going to jail early affect his sentence?

It didn't appear to help Vick. When a defendant reports early for a sentence, it is thought to signal that he has accepted responsibility for his transgressions. But Judge Hudson may have viewed it as a pandering ploy. If so, it may have had the opposite effect.

Similarly, Vick apparently didn't benefit by agreeing to pay more than $928,000 to care for dogs seized from his property

3) What message was Judge Hudson sending?

Judge Hudson's stiff sentences of Vick and his co-defendants offer several possible messages. First, illegal dog fighting operations have no place in the United States. Second, even if one's upbringing makes him more likely to engage in illegal dog fighting, we expect that person to overcome the temptation to engage in that dog fighting. Third, wealth, fame, and privilege will not insulate guilty defendants from receiving tough sentences.

4) Does Vick face more jail time with state charges?

Vick is still facing very similar state charges and is due to stand trial for them on April 2, 2008. If he is found guilty, Vick could receive additional prison time. Given the severity of Vick's federal sentence, however, state prosecutors may decline to move forward, though that is entirely within their discretion.

5) Will Vick's lawyers appeal?

I don't believe they have any grounds to appeal. They knew the inherent risk in a plea deal with the federal government: Judge Hudson could ignore the federal prosecutors' recommendation and impose a tougher sentence and warned Vick of that when he accepted the plea deal. And that is exactly what he did.

6) How much time will Vick actually serve and where?

The ultimate length of Vick's sentence remains unclear, since a conviction of state crimes could require him to spend more time behind bars. As his sentence presently stands, Vick will be required to serve at least 85 percent of his 23 month sentence, meaning a minimum of about 20 and a half months. Vick's potential for an early release depends on a host of factors, including his ability to avoid conflict while in prison.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons will determine which correctional facility incarcerates Vick. The Bureau will take into consideration the nature of Vick's crimes, the fact he is a first-time criminal, his agreement to plead guilty rather than to contest the charges, any recommendations offered by Judge Hudson, and any space or overcrowding issues at the facilities that could house Vick. It may also consider whether Vick's celebrity status might make him a target.

Based on these factors, Vick will likely serve his time in a minimum or medium security facility. After Vick is released from prison, he will be on probation for three years and will begin what's called a "supervised release." During this probationary period, Vick's life will be restricted in various ways that are designed to reintegrate him into the free world. I spoke with Thomas Hutchison, the chief of staff of the U.S. Parole Commission, to gain insight on those life restrictions. Vick will likely be required to perform community service, to avoid committing any crimes or associating with known criminals, and to report regularly to a probation officer from the U.S. Probation Office. He may also have to undergo drug tests and to adhere to travel restrictions. In many ways, Vick won't be entirely free until 2012.

Michael McCann is a professor at Mississippi College School of Law. He specializes in sports law.