Former NFL star quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty Tuesday to a state dogfighting charge, a necessary step to make him eligible for early release from prison and potentially speed a return to the NFL.
Vick, 28, pleaded guilty to one charge and not guilty to a second count that was then dropped. The former Atlanta Falcons star was given a three-year suspended sentence.
"I want to apologize to the court, my family, and to all the kids who looked up to me as a role model," Vick told the judge. He had arrived under police escort in wrist and ankle shackles and a gray suit, but the restraints were removed for the hearing.
Vick's mother Brenda Boddie, brother Marcus Vick and fiancee Kijafa Frink walked in together and sat together in the front row of the gallery with other family and friends. Vick's mother declined to comment to reporters but Marcus Vick acknowledged the family was glad the ordeal was nearly over.
After the hearing, Surry County Commonwealth Attorney Gerald Poindexter approached Vick's mother and hugged her, saying, "At least some of this is over."
Vick already is serving a 23-month sentence in Leavenworth, Kan. for a federal dogfighting conviction. He's scheduled for release on July 20, 2009, and will serve three years of probation.
Federal law prohibits prisoners from being released to a halfway house if there are unresolved charges pending against them.
Vick was convicted of the federal charges in August 2007 when he admitted bankrolling a dogfighting operation at a home he owned in eastern Virginia's rural Surry County, southeast of Richmond. He also admitted to participating in the killing of several underperforming dogs.
Since the conviction, he has landed in bankruptcy court after losing nearly all of his record-breaking $130 million from a 10-year deal he signed with Atlanta in December 2004.
Surry County Circuit Judge Samuel Campbell did not allow Vick to make his plea by videoconference, saying intense public interest made his appearance necessary.
Under the plea deal, Vick agreed to plead guilty to one count of promoting dogfighting and not guilty to a count that involved cruelty to animals.
Each state felony count was punishable by up to five years in prison.
"Any time in prison is hell. Michael's been punished. He knows what he did was wrong," Vick's lawyer Billy Martin said.