RICHMOND, Va. - How much, if any, will Michael Vick`s role as financier of a brutal dogfighting ring hurt him? What about his use of drugs while awaiting sentencing?
Or will he benefit from his public apology? His cooperation? His voluntary early start on his prison term?
Answers to these questions, among others, will determine how much time the suspended Atlanta Falcons quarterback will serve in prison for his role in a federal dogfighting conspiracy.
And the only man who knows the answers is U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson, who will sentence Vick in a packed courtroom today while the disgraced NFL star`s supporters and animal-rights activists rally outside.
Vick faces a maximum of five years in prison. Hudson is not bound by sentencing guidelines that suggest a year to 18 months, or prosecutors` recommendation.
Hudson already has sentenced two of Vick`s co-defendants to 18 months and 21 months - slightly more than prosecutors recommended, but still within the guidelines.
Legal experts said Hudson`s willingness to stick to the guidelines in those cases is a positive sign for Vick, but by no means a guarantee he will get similar treatment because so many factors could work against him.
For example, Vick admitted he bankrolled the "Bad Newz Kennels" dogfighting enterprise on a 15-acre property he owned in rural southeastern Virginia. He also gave his associates money to bet on the fights but said he did not share in any winnings.
"The judge could say that but for the money, this might not have happened - or might not have happened on the scale that it did," said Linda Malone, a law professor at the College of William & Mary.
Richmond attorney Steve Benjamin, secretary of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted the plea agreement Vick negotiated with prosecutors did not include any sentencing enhancement for a leadership role in the conspiracy. But that does not preclude Hudson from considering that role, Benjamin said.
Perhaps a bigger concern for Vick, according to Malone, is the extent of his involvement in executing dogs. Vick admitted helping kill six to eight pit bulls. Any details the judge learns about exactly what Vick did could weigh heavily in his decision, Malone said.
She said Hudson also likely will take a dim view of Vick`s positive test for marijuana in September - a violation of the conditions set for Vick`s release after he pleaded guilty. The infraction prompted Hudson to impose a curfew and electronic monitoring.
Vick voluntarily began serving his prison term Nov. 19, a move his lawyer said demonstrated Vick`s willingness to take responsibility for his actions.
"It was beneficial that he went in to serve his sentence before Thanksgiving, but that wasn`t completely altruistic because he couldn`t play football anyway," Malone said.
Defendants typically get credit for acceptance of responsibility and contrition. Vick apologized at a news conference after entering his guilty plea, and he will have an opportunity to speak directly to the court before he is sentenced.
Hudson also could hear from witnesses. According to the court, the sentencing hearing is expected to last two to four hours. The sentencings of co-defendants Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips combined took only a half hour. No witnesses testified at those hearings.
Vick`s lead attorney, Billy Martin, did not respond to an e-mail inquiry about possible character witnesses and whether Vick would directly address the court.
Like Vick`s previous court appearances, this one is expected to attract a throng of reporters, as well as demonstrators. Police will close streets around the federal courthouse. The Atlanta-based New Order Human Rights Organization plans to send members to support Vick, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will protest the mistreatment of dogs.
Gerald Rose, founder and CEO of New Order, said he hopes Hudson will be lenient.
"Michael Vick made a bad mistake," he said. "But at the same time, we believe in second chances. I think God has got Michael Vick`s attention. He`s going to come back a better man."
Spokesmen for PETA and the Humane Society of the United States said they trust Hudson to make the right decision.
"We just want to make sure the sentencing is in line not only with the two guys who were already sentenced, but also in line with just the outrage and the horror the people have over this case," said PETA spokesman Dan Shannon.