RICHMOND, Va. – Constructed in Italianate architecture nearly 150 years ago, the Lewis F. Powell Jr. United States Courthouse here boasts an impressive front, with doors that lead onto Main Street.
The federal judicial system prohibits anyone from bringing cell phones, computers or any electronic communication device into its courtrooms, such as the third floor one that former NFL star Michael Vick will be sentenced in Monday on charges stemming from a dog fighting ring.
As a result, the sentence Judge Henry E. Hudson renders probably won't be communicated to the masses expected to assemble across the street from those front doors until someone bursts out and shouts the news.
Like something out of an old movie.
What gets said could determine what kind of new drama unfolds.
Vick reached a plea agreement with federal authorities in August and has begun serving time in the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Va. The length of his sentence, however, is up to Judge Hudson. While the actual sentencing recommendations from both the government and Vick are under seal, a number of media reports contend it calls for 12 to 18 months.
If Hudson goes along with that, Vick, 27, could be free to return to the NFL for the 2009 season, although league commissioner Roger Goddell could hand down an additional suspension.
Hudson, however, can sentence Vick to up to five years in federal prison or as little as time served. Neither extreme is likely, but where the sentence falls on the sliding scale – if there is a surprise either in leniency or harshness – then the reaction from the crowd assembled outside could be wild.
The one constant of the Vick proceedings has been the throngs of passionate extremists – both supporters and protesters – that have converged on Main Street for each proceeding, not always on polite terms.
There have been shouting matches, near physical confrontations and name calling in a contentious scene that is charged up by the unmistakable and unavoidable fact that the sides break down almost exclusively along racial lines.
While the case of a man running a dog fighting ring is, almost by definition, devoid of race, and while none of the assembled have publicly wished to make it a racial issue, the fact is an estimated 90 to 95 percent of the Vick protesters are white. Meanwhile, 95 percent of the Vick fans are black; many bused up in an organized show of support from his hometown of Newport News, 80 miles southeast of here.
It has made the sidewalk across from those doors the front lines in a case that has divided parts of America in a way few could have envisioned. The result is a potentially combustible place, even with significant security.
The fervor of each group is almost complete. Some animal rights/anti-Vick signs and chants have called for his death or neutering. Some pro-Vick signs, songs and prayers have pled for complete freedom from an overzealous legal system.
After standing amidst them on both of Vick's previous court appearances and watching things build up to where the smallest of sparks could ignite things, anything seems possible. Back at the arraignment in July, two men, after an intense shouting match, squared off before being separated by what appeared to be three bank security guards.
This could easily teeter from intense to ugly. That it hasn't already may be as much coincidence and good fortune as anything.
Any kind of perceived victory by one side or the other – a sentence that is either shorter or longer than anticipated – is likely to be waved in the face of the other.
Judge Hudson is known by local court observers as "tough but fair." In court he cuts a commanding presence.
He has sentenced two of Vick's co-conspirators, Purnell A. Pearce and Quanis L. Phillips, to 18 and 21 months respectively, which may be a benchmark for Vick.
However, Vick was the final of four men associated with Bad Newz Kennels to plead guilty and often leniency is given to the first one to flip, not the last. He was also the financier of the entire operation, potentially adding severity. In addition, after looking Hudson in the eye and promising to avoid drugs and alcohol at his plea hearing in August, Vick tested positive for marijuana in September.
Monday's proceeding is expected to include the government providing evidence of the operation, often in gruesome details, and testimony from Vick's co-conspirators. Vick, too, will have a chance to speak.
Needless to say, Vick, once the NFL's highest paid player, is represented by a high profile legal team.
It is impossible to predict what Hudson – who called dog fighting "very cruel" in a sentencing of a Vick conspirator – will think after all of the evidence and arguments are made. But somewhere in the back of his mind he must know that his decision will be subject to extensive analysis and have wide-reaching impact.
The crowd, out on that sidewalk on both sides of the dispute, will be waiting.
Which is why – old school style – all eyes Monday afternoon will be on those courthouse doors here in Richmond, all ears on the sentence that gets shouted when someone finally emerges to spread Henry Hudson's final word.