By any standard, NFL star Michael "Ookie" Vick has had an extraordinarily bad week. Arraigned last Thursday on federal charges relating, to his alleged role in a dog-fighting ring. Told to stay away from Falcons' training camp by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell--a possible prelude to a season-long suspension. Endorsement deals on hold, with Nike delaying the launch of its latest Vick sneaker, and Rival Reebok taking his number 7 jersey off the shelves, at least for now.
And, if that weren't bad enough, the media hounds from PETA reinforced Vick's "new" image as a heartless thug, with a series of high-profile demonstrations outside NFL Headquarters and the Falcons' training complex. A minor-league baseball team in California took public condemnation a step further, holding a "dog day" at their stadium, and inviting pet lovers to dump their pet poop in a special container, covered by a Vick jersey.
After all that, Vick had to reassure himself: it couldn't get any worse.
This morning, the quarterback's key associate in the dog-fighting operation, one Tony Taylor, entered a guilty plea to dog-fighting charges in a federal court in Richmond, Virginia. Taylor claims that he was not promised a specific sentence, in exchange for his cooperation with the government.
According to court records, Taylor was one of Vick's earliest associates in the dog-fighting ring. It was Taylor who located the property in Surry County where "Bad Newz Kennels" was eventually built, and dog fights were held. It was Taylor who allegedly executed two dogs (with Vick's concurrence) in 2002, not long after the kennels opened. Obviously, Mr. Taylor knows a lot about what transpired at Vick's former property, and during out-of-state fights as well. That's a big reason the feds offered him a deal and (facing up to five years in prison), Taylor was happy to accept the offer. Mr. Taylor's sentencing is set late December, one month after Vick's scheduled trial.
Despite a double-whammy of indictments and bad publicity, Vick still has a chance to win his case. He's hired a very skilled legal shark (Billy Martin, the same attorney who once represented Monica Lewinsky), and there are signs that Team Vick will likely play the race card. Earlier today, leaders of the Atlanta and Georgia chapters of the NAACP held a press conference, urging "restraint" in judging Vick before his day in court. Pro-Vick demonstrations were held over the weekend in his hometown of Newport News, Virginia, and outside Falcons' training camp.
Clearly, there's no evidence that Mr. Martin or Michael Vick encouraged the NAACP to hold that press event, but they certainly didn't object. These "friendly reminders" will likely continue in the coming months, in obvious effort to influence public opinion--and potential jurors.
Vick also has an advantage in the trial's location (Richmond), where there are plenty of Virginia Tech fans in the jury pool. While many Tech supporters are outraged by the charges against their former star, others remember Vick as the quarterback who took them to the national championship game. Fans in that category may be more forgiving to Vick, and willing to listen to Mr. Martin's defense.
While authorities discovered ample evidence on Vick's property, the case will likely come down to the credibility of the Falcons' quarterback, versus that of his accusers. Taylor and the "cooperating witnesses" named in the original indictment have clear reasons for talking. All were apparently involved in dog-fighting themselves, giving Mr. Martin an opening to attack their character and veracity. Additionally, Vick's counsel will remind jurors that his client was absent when many of the fights occurred in Surry County, to further undermine the prosecution's case.
An attorney friend of mine, who practices in Virginia, believes that odds of a conviction are 70-30 right now, with Vick on the short end of the stick. But, as he notes, it's a long time before the trial actually begins, and Martin is in the early stages of plotting a defense. A lot could happen between now and December, he observed. "Remember," he said, "a lot of us thought O.J. was a slam dunk back in 1995."
And we remember what happened when that verdict was announced. A plea deal for Tony Taylor is certainly bad news for Michael Vick, but he's still a long way from being convicted.