By Hank Kurz Jr.
RICHMOND, Va. - When Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick appears in federal court next week on dogfighting charges, he'll go before a judge not impressed by Vick's celebrity and in a court known nationwide for its speedy handling of cases.
Legal experts describe U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson as a tough but fair jurist who, in five years on the federal bench, has become known for handing down stiff sentences, for being prepared and for allowing both sides to show their cards.
"Trial lawyers love to appear in his court because he lets the lawyers try their case," defense attorney and former prosecutor William J. Dinkin of Richmond said. "Everyone is going to get their fair shake. He's a very evenhanded trial judge."
Vick's appearance July 26 along with three other defendants will be to enter pleas to charges of competitive dogfighting, procuring and training pit bulls for fighting, and conducting the enterprise across state lines. If convicted of both felony charges, the four face up to six years in prison, fines of up to $350,000 and restitution.
Hudson is "generally known as a hard sentencer," Dinkin said, and is not likely to treat Vick any differently because of his superstar status and $130 million contract.
"He's straight forward, a straight shooter," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "You don't get any special perks because of who you are, and you don't get punished because you aren't somebody who is a public figure."
The Falcons will be conducting their first practice of training camp under a new coach while Vick is in court, and Hudson is unlikely to be influenced at all by that.
"I would not expect Judge Hudson to make any special allowances because Mr. Vick plays in the NFL," said defense lawyer Craig W. Sampson of Richmond, who has had several cases before Hudson. "Virginia courts, both state and federal, are generally very businesslike in the way they run their dockets."
That's especially true of the U.S. District Court in Richmond, which has become known as the "rocket docket" for getting its cases handled expediently.
"They really do move the cases along," Tobias said. "They're no-nonsense."
Sampson said lawyers know going in that their cases won't languish.
"When a case is filed, the judges demand that the lawyers get moving," he said. "Discovery is to be done, hearings scheduled, and the cases heard. No excuses."
The complexity of Vick's case, however, could slow it down, Tobias said.
"You've got four people and a lot of actions in a lot of states and a whole bunch of witnesses. It could be fairly complicated so, on that basis, it may take more time," he said, adding that most federal cases are plea-bargained before getting to court.
Considering the stakes, though, and Vick's ability to afford the best legal team money can buy, it seems unlikely he'll pass on a trial and his possible exoneration.
While Falcons owner Arthur Blank on Thursday echoed the stances of the NFL and the player's union in saying his centerpiece quarterback is due his day in court, Tobias said the grisly allegations in the 18-page indictment are difficult to ignore.
But, for due process to work, they must be, he said.
"What the grand jury certified certainly was extensive and reprehensible, but it's different than being convicted before a jury in a courtroom," he said. "We'll see."