What the Hell Are They Thinking?Posted by Scott Heiser, Director of ALDF's Criminal Justice Program on September 10th, 2007
The post-plea, presentence phase of a criminal case can be a very interesting time. So it is with Michael Vick. For different reasons, Vick’s defense team, the NFL and the Falcons are all desperately trying to deflect and refocus the public’s attention. Vick’s defense team will continue to spin this as a “tragedy” for Vick’s family, for Vick’s teammates and for a “talented young man who is trying to rebuild his life after making a poor decision.” Classic: minimize the conduct and attempt to induce empathy for the defendant (oh, yeah, appeal to the religious right by invoking Vick’s newfound love of Jesus). This is the only hope Vick’s camp has of keeping him in the NFL. Serving a federal sentence is a second-tier concern—retaining access to a multimillion-dollar income is the top priority. Despite the disappointing decision of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to allow it as part of the plea agreement, why do you think Vick refused to admit to betting on his dogs? To improve his chances of staying affiliated with the league.
From the league and the team, the message seems to be, “We didn’t know Vick was a dogfighting thug… But, hey, it’s football season, so sit down, crack a cold one and watch the game!” The hope being that, just maybe, folks will stop talking about this situation.
Enter Whoopi Goldberg and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC). Coming at it from very different perspectives, each has generated yet another news cycle for a story that has very impressive staying power. Ms. Goldberg seems to be of the “View” that since Vick is from the “deep south” where she says dogfighting is part of the “culture,” his conduct should be measured against that backdrop rather than against the cold and impersonal backdrop of the federal criminal code and those pesky laws Vick repeatedly and systemically violated for years. Ms. Goldberg’s logic is so painfully flawed that one can’t help but feel sorry for her. If Ms. Goldberg’s reasoning is accurate, then judges should consider a hate crime offender’s “cultural heritage” as a mitigating factor in sentencing. The Goldberg mitigation argument would go something like this: “Your Honor, my client is from the deep south and he was raised in an environment of racial intolerance. Therefore, in fashioning a sentence for burning a cross in Mr. Smith’s front yard, I urge you to be sensitive to his cultural heritage and judge his conduct in the context in which he was raised. Simply put, he was raised to think that way and [by inference] just didn’t know any better.” Labeling this logic as offensive and insulting is being way too generous. The federal sentencing guidelines do not subscribe to this ridiculous view and no judge worth his or her salt does either. Shame on you Whoopi. You should have stayed in that coveted center square and steered well clear of commenting on federal sentencing practices.
Next up, the AJC’s story proclaiming that Vick’s extended involvement as a dogfighter was an “open secret” known to many well before his arrest. And yet, in the wake of Vick’s guilty plea, the brass within both the Falcons and the NFL would have us believe that they knew nothing of this side to Vick’s character. Do you honestly believe that any for-profit enterprise (team or league) preparing to invest tens of millions of dollars in a marque player would conduct a less-than-thorough background investigation of their investment or neglect to take steps to protect that investment once it’s made? Perhaps even more telling is this gem about the Falcons’ management, as reported by the AJC story: “The degree to which the team monitored off-the-field activities of its highest-paid player is not clear. Reggie Roberts, a spokesman for the Falcons, declined to comment.” Why would the Falcons decline to comment on this and why would the Falcons be anything less than clear about what they knew and when they knew it? It’s almost as if they are taking plays right out of Alberto Gonzales’ playbook. This is all-too predictable and, yet, sadly disappointing at the same time.