Friday, July 27, 2007

RICHMOND — With a raucous crowd of animal rights activists crowding the sidewalks and jeering him, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick yesterday pleaded not guilty to charges that he conspired with three associates to run an illegal dogfighting business.

Appearing before U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson, Vick remained silent except while answering basic questions and stating his preference for a jury trial.

Fellow defendants Purnell Peace, Quanis Phillips and Tony Taylor also pleaded not guilty and, barring any plea agreements, will stand trial alongside Vick on Nov. 26, four days after the Falcons are scheduled to play host to the Indianapolis Colts.

All four men were released without bond, though Peace and Phillips were ordered to wear electronic monitoring devices because they had prior convictions. If convicted of the dogfighting charges, Vick and his associates face up to five years in prison.

In court, Vick sat to the judge’s right alongside attorneys Billy Martin of the District, Lawrence Woodward of Virginia Beach and Daniel Meachum of Atlanta. Tom Shuttleworth of Virginia Beach and James Williams of Durham, N.C., also will represent Vick.

In a statement read by Martin, Vick offered a general apology to his family and his Falcons teammates but did not address the specifics of the case.

“I take these charges very seriously and look forward to clearing my name. I respectfully ask you all to hold your judgment until all the facts are shown,” he said.

Vick is charged with dogfighting, which carries a sentence of up to one year in prison. A more serious charge of conspiracy — crossing state lines to carry out the dogfighting business — carries a sentence of up to five years. Prosecutors acknowledged yesterday that they will focus on the conspiracy charges, because the sentences for the two crimes cannot run consecutively. Prosecutors also yesterday revealed they will hand down a second indictment in the case some time next month.

The prosecutors’ accusations, which include stories of abuse and murder of pit bulls, drew the ire this week of many animal rights groups. Vick’s appearance yesterday attracted hundreds of people to downtown Richmond, many of them carrying signs and chanting protests against the embattled NFL star.

Representatives including PETA and the Humane Society of the United States filled Main Street across the street from the courthouse. The crowd jeered loudly during the brief moment when Vick exited the courthouse and left in a white SUV.

“We want to make sure that people don’t lose sight of the fact that regardless of Michael Vick’s guilt or innocence, dogfighting doesn’t start or stop with him,” said Dan Shannon, an assistant director with Peta2, the youth-oriented arm of PETA. “There are an estimated 40,000 professional dogfighters in the U.S. They may not all be in the NFL, but they deserve their day in court.”

PETA has urged the NFL to suspend Vick without pay and Nike to stop selling Vick’s brand of shoes.

According to the indictment, Vick bought a property in Smithfield, Va., in June 2001 and, with the help of the three other defendants, purchased pit bulls and began holding dogfights that year. In 2002, the dogfighting operation became a full-fledged business enterprise, dubbed “Bad Newz Kennels.”

The indictment claims that all four defendants shot, drowned, hung or electrocuted dogs that did not fight well and details one occasion in which the defendants slammed one dog to the ground until it died. Investigators also reported to have found materials relating to dogfighting, including a “rape stand” used to strap down female dogs for breeding purposes.

Despite the harsh claims, Vick was not without his supporters, many of whom lined up in front of the courthouse as early as 7 a.m. for a chance to see him in person.

“He’s a good person, and he’s my favorite player,” said Tyrone Robinson, 20, of Richmond. “You have to support him. I don’t think he electrocuted dogs or anything like that. He might have bet on them, but I don’t think he electrocuted them.”

It is unclear what impact the indictment and trial will have on Vick’s ability to play for the Falcons this season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this week ordered Vick to stay away from training camp until the league has the chance to review the case.

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