A blog by Miami Criminal Defense Lawyer Brian Tannebaum. Commenting on criminal law issues of local and national interest.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Embracing Michael Vick

The other day I saw a criminal defense lawyer promoting a petition against President Obama's words of thanks to Philadelphia Eagles' owner Jeffrey Lurie for giving Michael Vick a second chance. This criminal defense lawyer spends a great deal of time advocating against animal abuse. I think that's wonderful.

But I disagree that criminal defense lawyers should be raging against Vick getting a second chance.

Now to discuss this, I need to go back a few steps. You can't discuss anything relating to animal abuse without making a few things clear. So to all you animal rights activists, stop typing, for a moment.

Certain crimes are more emotional than others - crimes against children, the elderly, the disabled, theft of money from charities, and yes, animal abuse.

Animal abuse is one of those crimes that is defenseless. Stealing food, for example, while a crime, can be understood if the person is starving to death.

Abusing defenseless animals is something for which there is no excuse.

Michael Vick abused defenseless animals. Call it "dogfighting," call it whatever you want - he put dogs in an environment where the goal was for them to kill each other. Disgusting, pathetic, criminal.

So before you type line 6 of the talking points "you support dog fighting, I don't.

I support Michael Vick getting a "second chance," and encourage all criminal defense lawyers to do the same.

Let me continue.

When the ink was still drying on my law degree, I was appointed to represent a Santeria priest charged with slaughtering animals. His defense - religion of course, but the way he slaughtered these animals was not in accord with religious methods.

A few weeks after my appointment, I was called in to court. The judge was receiving letter after letter, call after call. On the record, the judge handed over all the letters that were received - everyone saying the same thing, word for word. "If the defendant is convicted he should receive the maximum sentence." Some letters varied. Some were downright nasty, particularly the one written by my aunt.

The letters to the judge kept pouring in. A leader in the Florida ASPCA made sure he went to the press and trashed my client. I responded with a letter to his boss. He responded with a letter to my (new) boss. I was told to apologize and back off - "we don't need to get in to it with those people." My boss was on the cusp of an election. I complied.

The point is that animal rights activists are not the easiest people with which to engage in debate.

I told this criminal defense lawyer that I didn't think criminal defense lawyers should be advocating that someone who pled guilty, served their prison sentence, and successfully completed probation, shouldn't be able to return to their profession.

Now I've learned over the years that the criminal defense bar is not homogeneous. There are conservative republicans, liberal democrats, devout Christians, and devout atheists (is that an oxymoron?) There are criminal defense lawyers who passionately believe in the death penalty, and those that believe every client is innocent. It's important as criminal defense lawyers that we understand this distinction. We may be on the same side of the system, but we are far from all being on the same team when it comes to many of life's issues.

When I pursued the issue of Vick getting a second chance, and how we as criminal defense lawyers should use this experience as a way to show people that being a convicted felon should not be the end of life, I was told to have a sex offender babysit my kids. I wasn't surprised, this is how this crowd rolls.

I explained that football has nothing to do with dogs. Of course I wouldn't let a sex offender babysit my kids, nor would I let a chronic car thief borrow my car - but Michael Vick should be able to play football.

Now when Vick was arrested, I said he would never again play in the NFL. It wasn't because I didn't think he should play, but because I thought that the animal rights advocates would make the world of the NFL a living hell - that they would attend every game, protest sponsors, yell things to fans entering stadiums.

There were some protests, but they died out. The objection now is clear: Vick is doing well, he's throwing good passes, running fast, making fans happy. This, is the objection.

I asked this criminal defense colleague to tell me what would happen if Vick was a plumber? What if Michael Vick was a plumber, got arrested for dog fighting, pled guilty, went to prison (by the way, how many people have gone to federal prison for dog fighting?), was released, and went back to plumbing? The answer is obvious - no one would care.

The caring comes from the fact that Vick went back to a career where the world can see him on Sundays, and his salary is not $30,000, but more money that most people make in a lifetime. Animal rights activists don't find this fair. That's ok, I understand. They wanted life, or death.

We live in a society where just getting arrested these days can end a career. Convicted felons have little chance of getting a job, much less returning to their former careers - even when their job has nothing to do with their crime.

The argument from criminal defense lawyers who despise Vick is that "none of my clients would be able to finish their sentence and return to making millions." It's the rich vs. poor argument that gets us nowhere. It's the "why did he get that sentence and my client got this sentence" cry that results in nothing.

The discussion of "celebrity justice" when it comes to Vick though, is non-sensical. Vick didn't get celebrity justice. He got indicted, he went to prison, he served his time. He killed dogs. No one thinks that's ok. But his job is to run and jump and throw, not to be a zoo keeper or a Veterinarian.

Sometimes the criminal defense bar needs to take the opportunity to use an anomaly in the system to their advantage - talk about how someone like Vick can return from the depths of conviction and be a productive person.

Or use your agenda to wail against what it is you really want - an opportunity for your client to be like Michael Vick.

Brian Tannebaum practices both Criminal and Bar discipline defense, and is the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter


  1. Brian,

    Great post. Vick might not be allowed to work at Wal-Mart, much less drive a school bus or sell insurance because of his record. I can understand the frustration a CDL would have comparing Vick's treatment to that of their own clients ...

    But his example presents an opportunity to show how people, given the chance, can surprise you. Vick was more or less handed his second chance on a platter, but many others, I'm sure, are willing to earn theirs. I'm glad that you have taken advantage of the opportunity ... and it's a little depressing that other CDLs would squander the same opportunity out of jealousy.

  2. This dovetails nicely with another one of your recent posts, dealing the with devastation defendants suffer, even when they are acquitted.

    I'm not ready to canonize Vick like some ESPN talking heads, but CDLs could focus on the similarities between a celeb convict like Vick and our own clients, to draw attention to the difficulties of re-entry. Consider, after a relatively short period of incarceration, it took Vick two years of intense preparation to regain skills that once came naturally. Compare that to defendants that do 5-10 years and have to re-enter society with criminal records and having to re-learn/learn a marketable skill or trade. Also, like many of our clients Vick left prison with a mountain of debt waiting for him...a hole he is still digging himself out of despite making $4 million this season. Not a perfect analogy by any stretch of the imagination, but a cause for discussion.

  3. Nathan Neulinger9:13 PM

    Don't you see though, that you've done the same thing in your post?

    "Of course I wouldn't let a sex offender babysit my kids"

    Why not? You're making the assumption that all sex offenders are child abusers - and ignoring that a significant percentage of them are caught up in the label. (i.e. romeo+juliet cases, public urination, mardi-gras style exposure cases, etc.)