RICHMOND, Virginia (AFP) — National Football League superstar Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison here on Monday for his role in a dogfighting ring.
US District Judge Henry Hudson imposed the sentence, which was harsher than the 12-18 months recommended by prosecutors under the agreement they reached when Vick pleaded guilty to conspiracy to operate a dogfighting enterprise across state lines.
The federal charge had carried a maximum of five years.
Vick, 27, surrendered to authorities on November 19 and was already in jail. The one-time darling of NFL fans and sports marketers has been indefinitely suspended by the NFL.
Wearing a black and white prison jumpsuit, Vick showed little emotion as Hudson pronounced the sentence, which also includes three years' probation.
"You need to apologize to the millions of young people who looked up to you," Hudson admonished Vick, who responed, "Yes, sir."
Vick admitted that he used poor judgment and said he was prepared to make amends.
"I'm willing to deal with the consequences and accept responsibility for my actions," he said. "I would like to apologise to the court, to my family, to my kids, for what I have done."
Under his plea agreement, Vick cannot appeal Hudson's ruling. He will receive credit for one month of time served after reporting to prison early.
"This is a tragedy in the life of this young man," Billy Martin, Vick's lead attorney, said outside the court. "Michael has fallen so hard, so far, so fast. He has been punished for his mistake."
The explosively talented quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons sparked outrage across the United States when he admitted sharing responsibility in the slayings of six to eight dogs who had performed poorly in fights, including deaths by hanging, drowning and beating.
Animal rights activists protested outside court on Monday, displaying posters showing injured dogs that read, "Report Dogfighters" and "Dogs Deserve Justice."
Prosecutors said Vick bankrolled the operation, which may have weighed with the judge in deciding the sentence. A positive test for marijuana while Vick was awaiting sentencing was also apparently a factor.
Hudson had already sentenced two of Vick's co-defendants, Purnell Peace and Quanis Phillips, to 18 and 21 months for conspiracy. A third, Tony Taylor, awaits sentencing on Friday.
Vick also faces trial next year on Virgina state charges related to the operation of the Bad Newz Kennels out of a property he owned in rural Virginia. Authorities found dogs and dogfighting equipment at the property in April, during a drug investigation of Vick's cousin who had given the address as his residence.
Vick initally denied any knowledge of dogfighting, changing his story only after the other three defendants admitted guilt and agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Now Vick's once spectacular NFL career is in tatters.
"This is a difficult day for Michael's family and for a lot of us, including many of our players and fans who have emotionally invested in Michael over the years," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in a statement.
"We sincerely hope that Michael will use this time to continue to focus his efforts on making positive changes in his life, and we wish him well in that regard," Blank said.
In six NFL seasons with the Falcons, Vick completed 930 of 1,730 passes for 11,505 yards and 71 touchdowns with 52 interceptions and ran 529 times for 3,859 yards and 21 touchdowns.
In 2006, Vick had his best rushing season, carrying 123 times for 1,039 yards and two touchdowns, and second-best passing campaign, completing 204 of 388 passes for 2,474 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Vick signed a 10-year, 130 million-dollar contract with the Falcons in December of 2004, but an arbitrator ruled earlier this month that he owes the Falcons 19.97 million dollars in signing bonuses for violating his contract.
Vick has also lost his lucrative sponsorship deals, and has paid more than 900,000 dollars into a fund to pay for the care of dogs rescued from the operation.
When Vick pleaded guilty in August he agreed to pay "restitution for the full amount of the costs associated with the disposition of all dogs" in the case.
"Michael Vick committed a reckless and unconscionable crime, and the sentence meted out today is fitting and appropriate," Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society of the United States, said in a statement. "We hope that anyone participating in the sordid activity realizes that dogfighting is a dead end and no good can come from it."
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