Vick spit on the legal system

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RICHMOND, Va. – He chomped on chewing gum and wore his Nike Air Force 1 Mids – bright white to match the stripes on his prison garb – as he walked into federal court Monday to answer for his mistakes.

Only some of the mistakes that may haunt Michael Vick most, the ones that hurt his chances of ever again racing his Nikes around the NFL and should eat him up on the long, lonely nights behind bars are the one's he committed since pleading guilty in connection to a dog-fighting ring.

Vick should have faced a sentence of 12-18 months after accepting a plea deal to conspiracy charges in August and promising full cooperation, honesty and to "make better decisions."

Instead he made more bad ones, U.S. Attorneys claiming he failed to fully admit or take responsibility for his actions, practiced multiple counts of deception and tested positive for marijuana just weeks after promising the judge he'd avoid drugs.

Those mind-numbing mistakes not only sent his sentencing guidelines to 18-24 months, but played a part in Judge Henry Hudson's decision to lean on the high side and send him away for 23 months. Even with good behavior and time served he won't be released until around June 2009.

Moreover, Vick still faces state charges and remains on indefinite suspension from the NFL, where he was once the league's highest paid player. Neither situation was helped by Monday's revelations.

Vick looked crushed at the sentencing, offering a distraught look to his family, some of whom wept at its reading.

But even the staunchest Vick supporter – the ones who believe the prison term is not only too lengthy but an unnecessary rehabilitation tool for someone with no prior convictions, little likelihood of repeat behavior and is a minimal threat to society – can only stand in puzzlement at Vick's conduct.

No matter what you think of the crime, the prosecution or the punishment, everyone knows that when given the chance to work the legal system for leniency you don't just turn and spit in its eye.

The failed drug test alone was inexplicable. Just 17 days after promising to avoid drugs and alcohol, Vick smoked marijuana. The next day he took a drug test, which he failed, and then lied to an investigator about taking drugs.

His attorney, Billy Martin, was stuck trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat, starting one explanation with the unenviable legal phrase "moving to the smoking marijuana." Martin's defense: That Vick was depressed and "self-medicating."

Hudson kept a straight face but was clearly unmoved.

Then there were Vick's "deception" with federal authorities, at least six such acts according to U.S. Attorney Michael Gill, even after the suspended Atlanta Falcon had agreed to fully cooperate.

Vick, for instance, initially refused to admit he took part in the hanging of a dog. He claimed instead that he carried the underperforming dog over to co-conspirator Quanis Phillips, who then hung him. But Phillips had stated that Vick had carried the dog over and after Phillips slipped a noose around its neck, Vick let the dog drop.

"He denied having hands on involvement in killing the dogs," Gill said. "He made a false statement; it was a calculated effort to hide the truth."

Gill said Vick eventually admitted to killing two dogs, "one by drowning, one by hanging."

There was also a failed lie detector test which, while not admissible as evidence, obviously angered Gill who argued (successfully) against any leniency.

Vick's repeated performances were apparently so twisted, confusing and inconsistent that everyone wound up believing his codefendants over him, despite the fact they have lengthy criminal records.

"These statements are inconsistent with statements by his codefendants," Hudson ruled. "(Vick) hasn't demonstrated the necessary level of candor."

If Vick had fully cooperated, told the truth and kept clear of drugs, he could have received as little as 12 months, which with good behavior could have seen him free by next September.

Instead he got longer sentences than either of his two former partners (18 and 21 months) despite their prior records and direct responsibilities with Bad Newz Kennels.

The sentencing was completely one-sided for the U.S. Attorneys. Vick's lawyers could barely muster a defense, left to argue psychological theories and the appeal of mercy. Vick mustered a short speech, apologizing to some people and admitting "I've used poor judgment," but at that point it didn't appear anyone in power believed him.

It was such a whitewash that a proceeding that was predicted to last as long as four hours took a little over 45 minutes.

The sentence came down so soon that the expected crowd had just begun to gather outside the courthouse. A group of about 50 people – divided by Vick supporters and animal rights activists – traded signs, songs and arguments but the entire scene was subdued.

Vick, it turns out, did almost as much damage to himself with his plea deal as the crime itself. Worse, his performance with the feds can't be reassuring to the NFL. He's done little to show he is a changed man who deserves to be immediately reinstated upon completion of his prison term.

Conceivably, Vick could be in a training camp as soon as July 2009, trying to work off the prison rust on what would then be his 29-year-old body. But the league is likely to make him sit an additional year or, who knows, even more. After Monday, his credibility appears to be at zero.

"I'm willing to say that should Michael Vick get another chance either in society or the NFL, he will take full advantage of it," Martin said.

Perhaps he will. But his last chance didn't go so well.

Given every opportunity to make up for his dog-fighting crimes, to live up to his word, to prove to everyone that this was just a lapse in judgment of a good man, he did just about everything wrong.

Back in his cell Monday night, that's the part that ought to haunt him the most.