RICHMOND, Va. - In a striped prison suit straight out of the Keystone Kops, Mr. Bad Newz accepted the bad news.
A grandstanding judge with a reputation for stiff sentencing slapped Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick with 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring, as well as a $5,000 fine and 3 years of probation.
Vick took the news quietly, his chin on his hand, his mother sobbing in the courtroom behind him.
It is almost twice the minimum 12 months Vick's lawyers and prosecutors agreed upon, but well short of the 5 years and $250,000 maximum sentence U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson could have issued.
With good behavior, Vick could exit prison after 19 1/2 months.
Afterward, his lead lawyer, Billy Martin, rued the spectacular decline of "someone who fallen so hard, so far, so fast." Exactly a year before, Vick had led the Atlanta Falcons to a win at Tampa Bay.
Outside the Lewis F. Powell Jr. U.S. Courthouse, the scene lacked the venom and outrage of the first two chapters of Vick's sensational saga connected with "Bad Newz Kennels," a dogfighting and gambling operation he bankrolled and oversaw in rural Surry County, Va., about 50 miles southeast of Richmond.
Vick arrived long before the protesters and left quickly after the 45-minute hearing, coming and going via a private dock reserved for persons already incarcerated.
After accepting a plea agreement in August, then failing a drug test in September, Vick had turned himself in 3 weeks ago and was awaiting sentencing in a jail in Warsaw, Va., about 50 miles northeast of Richmond. Thus, at 10 a.m., he appeared in court having bypassed traditional perp walks in front of scrambling photographers and cawing reporters in front of impassioned onlookers.
The surrender and exhausting attention served to mute what had been bitter reaction on both sides of the case.
Yesterday, there were no chants by the animal-rights activists, mostly representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. No more than a couple dozen protesters ever appeared; reporters, many affiliated with the 25 TV trucks parked around the courthouse, outnumbered protesters, 10-1.
There also were no calls from supporters to free Vick; in fact, until a charter bus half-filled with singing churchgoers arrived a few minutes before the hearing, only one random supporter stood near the PETA placard holders - and she stopped on her way to a job interview because she didn't see anyone else on Vick's side.
"There's nobody out here for that man," said Shainelle Wilson, 20, of Richmond. "I'm not for dogfighting, but I believe he's still a good person."
So did the tight-lipped contingent from Psalms Ministry, who bused in from Hampton, Va., near Vick's hometown of Newport News. Singing gospel songs on the sidewalk, the group's members declined to comment on exactly why they were there, or whether Vick is a member of their church, but they wore pro-Vick T-shirts saying, "God Forgives. How About You?"
Hudson wasn't in a forgiving mood. With a strong hand, he left no doubt as to his skepticism about Vick's remorse or purported new outlook on life.
"I'm not convinced you've fully accepted responsibility," Hudson scolded.
"I'm willing to deal with the consequences and accept responsibility for my actions," insisted Vick, who admitted to using "poor judgment."
Prompted by Hudson, Vick, 27, added to his list of apology recipients the kids for whom he was a role model only 8 months before as a superstar - a prompt served in front of a contingent of civics students from Rocky Mount (N.C.) High who attended the sentencing.
Vick's journey to prison began April 25, when authorities raided his 15-acre estate while investigating Vick's cousin on suspicion of drug involvement and found a dogfighting setup that dated back to 2002.
By the end of July, searches of the property had unearthed seven dog carcasses, Vick was indicted by a federal grand jury, a co-defendant had agreed to help authorities in investigating Vick, all of Vick's endorsement deals had evaporated, and the Falcons had denied him access to training camp.
Less than a month later, after having insisted he was innocent, Vick pleaded guilty to dogfighting-conspiracy charges and was suspended indefinitely by the NFL. While awaiting sentencing, he then tested positive for marijuana in September and turned himself in.
Yesterday, Hudson referenced an FBI interview conducted in October that detailed Vick's hands-on role in executing two underperforming dogs, one by hanging, one by drowning.
The killings and the fights to the death were the crux of the outrage that brought the protesters to Main Street.
"I want to see what he gets. I hope he gets a lot," said Loughan Campbell, 40, who lives 2 miles from the courthouse.
She took the day off from work to stand across from the courthouse with her black Lab, Glinnie, and her bull terrier, Clementine.
For many on the street, this was their work.
"It sends a very strong message that dogfighting is a dead-end activity that carries with it meaningful consequences," recited John Goodwin, a U.S. Humane Society spokesman. "I believe the people involved in this bloodsport are hearing it loud and clear."
"It's actually fair," said Allie Phillips, who represented the American Humane Association. "What concerns us the most, and myself, as a former prosecutor, is there was no mention of formal [animal cruelty] counseling, either in prison or while he's out on [probation]. We could end up not seeing the end of Michael Vick."
It should be noted that Vick attended an 8-hour sensitivity training session Sept. 18. Caleb Wheeldon, the PETA youth division manager in Norfolk, Va., helped conduct the session.
"It stressed developing empathy for animals," said Wheeldon, who, like his cohorts, held a sign that said, "Dogs Deserve Justice." Wheeldon said he believes that Vick, who vowed redemption, can be redeemed: "He was really receptive. We thought it was a positive, good step for him."
Regardless, as part of the sentencing, Vick can no longer own, care for or sell dogs.
Vick also set aside nearly $1 million in an escrow account to help pay for the care and evaluation of the 53 dogs seized from the property. In May, he sold the house and property where the dogfighting took place; it is up for auction next by the new owner (with dogfighting facilities intact).
Vick has long existed just out of reach of controversy. Along with his cousin's fateful alleged connection with the drug trade, Vick's younger brother, Marcus, followed him at Virginia Tech, but legal and disciplinary issues short-circuited Marcus' promising football potential.
Vick, a legendary partyer, also claimed a measure of infamy for adopting the alias "Ron Mexico" when he checked into hotels - and, according to civil lawsuit filed in 2005, as an alias when he allegedly infected a woman with herpes. The league immediately stopped authorized production of popular Falcons replica jerseys on which fans could order the name "Mexico" on the back.
Two of Vick's co-defendants were sentenced Nov. 30. Purnell Peace, of Virginia Beach, got 18 months and Quanis Phillips, of Atlanta, received 21 months. Co-defendant Tony Taylor will be sentenced Friday.
All four men also face animal-cruelty charges in Surry County Circuit Court next spring.
Yesterday, Vick received no leniency for any of his actions, mainly because of his post-plea bargain drug test and because of his later admission that he did, in fact, actively take part in killing dogs. In an odd twist, that revelation could best serve the organizations that most revile Vick's deeds.
"He could be very effective in deterring others from dogfighting," Goodwin said.
"This is a unique, good opportunity to keep dogfighting in the spotlight," Wheeldon agreed.
That was the good newz. *