RICHMOND (AP) — The judge who will determine how much time Michael Vick spends in prison has shown little mercy over the years for high-profile defendants.
Nobody knows this better than defense lawyer Robert H. Smallenberg.
In 2004, he represented a city official who stole more than $1 million from Richmond taxpayers. He was well aware U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson had earned a reputation for handing down stiff sentences.
“Tough but fair” is the description most often heard from lawyers who appear before Hudson, who owns a bichon frise dog and declined to be interviewed.
“He’s a good trial judge, but on sentencing he tends to be in the middle or upper range of the sentencing guidelines,” attorney Murray Janus said. “A lot of judges start at the low end. Not Judge Hudson.”
Still, Smallenberg was caught off-guard by how hard Hudson came down on his client. The judge sentenced Robert Evans to 10 years in prison — double what was called for under federal sentencing guidelines — declaring “the abuse of trust here is absolutely immeasurable.”
“I wasn’t surprised he went above the guidelines, but I was surprised he went that far,” Smallenberg said yesterday.
Based on his experience, Smallenberg said he won’t be surprised if Hudson takes a similarly tough position in the case of NFL star Vick, who is scheduled to plead guilty to a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge Monday.
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because terms of the plea agreement are not final, has told the Associated Press prosecutors will recommend a sentence of one year to 18 months. However, the maximum sentence is five years, and Hudson is not bound by any recommendation or by the federal sentencing guidelines.
Vick’s lawyers will try for the shortest possible sentence.
“Unless they have some mitigating circumstances in their favor, they’re going to have some problems,” Smallenberg said.
Even so, Hudson likely will prove to be a tough sell.
Rob Wagner, who leads the federal public defender’s office in Richmond, said defense attorneys in Hudson’s courtroom face a rough road when arguing mitigating factors should result in a sentence below the guideline range.
“You know when you get Judge Hudson he’s going to take a tough line in sentencing,” he said.
Vick’s lead attorney, Billy Martin, is aware of the challenge.
“We know we will be appearing before a judge who is considered a very fair judge but also a judge who is very firm,” he said.
“We’re hoping at the right time to show the other sides of Michael Vick to Judge Hudson. The media and the indictment show one very small side of Mr. Vick, which is not his best side. We’re hoping to show the whole person as this case evolves.”
Since his indictment in July, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback has become a public symbol of animal abuse. His already-tarnished image suffered even more when two co-defendants said Vick participated in killing at least eight underperforming pit bulls.
Those men and a third co-defendant pleaded guilty and were prepared to testify against Vick had the case gone to trial.
Although the Vick case is the most sensational one to come before Hudson since President Bush appointed him to the federal bench in 2002, he has handled cases involving locally prominent people.
In 2005, he sentenced former state lawmaker Fenton Bland to four years and nine months in prison for conspiracy to commit bank fraud, rejecting a defense plea for a reduced sentence so Bland could better care for his two young children.
“Was I surprised? No,” said Janus, who represented Bland. “Was I disappointed? Yes.”
Janus also represented H. Louis Salomonsky, a prominent Richmond real estate developer who pleaded guilty to trying to bribe a city councilwoman. Hudson sentenced Salomonsky to two years. Even though prosecutors and Janus asked for a reduction to one year, Hudson would cut the term only to 18 months.
Attorney Brian Grossman said he has represented many clients, mostly in drug cases, in Hudson’s court and has never persuaded the judge to sentence below the guidelines.
Defense attorneys point out that although Hudson is tough at sentencing, he doesn’t coddle prosecutors either. Hudson was appointed by President Reagan as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia — a position he held from 1986 to 1991.
“He will hold the government to its burden,” Grossman said. “It’s only when you get to sentencing that the defense is behind the eight-ball.”
Hudson ascended to the bench through the law enforcement ranks, starting as a deputy sheriff in Arlington County in 1969. He also has served as a local prosecutor, as director of the U.S. Marshals Service and as a circuit court judge in Fairfax County.
“He is a law-and-order kind of guy,” Wagner said.