Will Michael Vick plead guilty?
Spokesmen for the NFL quarterback's defense team and the U.S. attorney's office, which is prosecuting Vick and three others in a dogfighting conspiracy case, are tight-lipped. They will neither confirm nor deny reports that the Newport News native is negotiating a plea agreement.
One of his co-defendants, Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton, has already pleaded guilty, and plea hearings are set for this week for the other co-defendants, Purnell Peace, 35, of Virginia Beach and Quanis Phillips, 28, of Atlanta.
What is clear is that the U.S. attorney's office in Richmond has mentioned a possible superseding indictment, which could add charges with tougher penalties.
The threat of that indictment could influence someone to cut a deal before it's filed, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor.
"It's not uncommon," Tobias said. "I think, especially the way this case has gone, they're gathering information as they go along. The more people who plead, the more information they have. That'll build their case."
James Rybicki, public information officer for the U.S. attorney's office, said superseding indictments are filed the same way indictments are filed - by a federal grand jury in proceedings that are conducted in secret. "Therefore, we can't discuss them."
There are reports, however, that the U.S. attorney's office could seek prosecution under a federal racketeering statute that carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
That statute, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, was originally drafted to crack down on mob crime, Tobias said. Over the years, however, it has been broadly used, such as in prosecuting abortion protesters and companies that hire illegal immigrants. Tobias wasn't surprised to hear the statute brought up in this case.
"It wouldn't strike me as extraordinary to use it here," he said. "The government does use it quite a bit."
Vick is accused of conspiring with Peace, Taylor and Phillips in 2001 to create a dogfighting organization called Bad Newz Kennels. The indictment lists at least 30 fights and 15 dogs that died at the defendants' hands between 2002 and 2007.
John Goodwin, who handles dogfighting issues with the Humane Society of the United States, called the RICO Act a "logical law" to use when prosecuting animal-fighting cases.
"We've tried to figure out ways to use this against dogfighters in the past," Goodwin said. "It has been threatened against cockfighters before, in a specific case in Oregon. It was kind of a similar instance. The act was going to be used, but then they pleaded guilty before the charges were upgraded."
The original charge against Vick and his co-defendants, conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal-fighting venture, is punishable by up to five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.
If Vick does plead guilty, jail time is likely, said Linda Malone, law professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
"The prosecutor has a lot of discretion, but given the high-profile nature of case, if the prosecutor has solid enough evidence I would think they would have a very difficult time offering a plea agreement without some jail time to be served," Malone said.
"The defense attorney is going to try to negotiate something else - community service, public service announcements, something like that might be sufficient. It's a matter of negotiating, and as long as there's agreement on both sides, it doesn't necessarily have to fall within the minimum and maximum guidelines."
"The great unknown here is how strong the case is, how strong the evidence is," Malone said. "The stronger the evidence, the more strength the prosecutor has in negotiations."
The other big question is, will Vick play?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can discipline players who are convicted or admit to criminal violations with a fine, suspension with or without pay or banishment from the league, according to the league's personal conduct policy.
Goodell, who took the job of commissioner a year ago, has spent the last year cracking down on badly behaving players.
So far, Vick has been told to stay away from the Atlanta Falcons' training camp, but the league has not yet publicly discussed what formal punishment Vick could face.
Vick has put a "significant portion of his career in jeopardy," said John Owens, a Tampa, Fla., attorney and sports agent.
Under Goodell's strict disciplinary policies, the trend has been that players who get in trouble and wind up serving jail time also get hit with a suspension once they get out, Owens said.
After that, "some of his best and most productive years may be behind him," Owens said. "On top of that, after he does serve his time and after he does serve his suspension, then he might be a lightning rod for a team that takes him on."
Before Goodell became commissioner, other football players returned to the field despite criminal charges.
In 2004, Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis faced up to 10 years in prison on federal charges relating to a 2000 cocaine deal.
He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and, during the off season, served four months in jail and two months in a halfway house. The NFL suspended Lewis for two games without pay. He remains one of football's better running backs and now plays for the Cleveland Browns.
In 2000, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, no relation to Jamal Lewis, faced murder and aggravated assault charges in connection with a fight outside an Atlanta club during Super Bowl week. In exchange for his testimony against co-defendants, Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice and received a year's probation.
Neither the Ravens nor the NFL suspended Lewis, and the following season he was the most valuable player of the team's Super Bowl victory.
Lewis still plays for the Ravens and is regarded as one of the game's premier linebackers.
Neither of those cases has had the impact that Vick's case is having in the sports world and beyond.
"Reebok has never pulled a player's jersey because of off-the-field conduct. Nike never drops anyone because of off-the-field conduct. This case really struck a chord with the American public," Goodwin said. "We've had a head-on collision between the dominant culture that loves dogs and views them as best friends and the seedy subculture that tortures dogs and makes them fight to death. Two worlds collided."
Staff writers Mike Holtzclaw and David Teel contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times