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Experts: Vick's legal team faces daunting public relations challenge

RICHMOND - Michael Vick's high-profile legal team must master public-relations challenges, as much as legal hurdles, in the NFL star's potentially career-ending trial on federal dogfighting charges.

'Obviously, it's a nightmare,' said lawyer Mark J. Geragos, who represents Barry Bonds' personal trainer Greg Anderson, who's in prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Bonds' alleged perjury. 'Probably the biggest thing you've got to do is focus on the client and, as best you can, prepare them for going through something like this.'

That will be the responsibility of Billy Martin of Washington, D.C., who will lead Vick's legal team. His previous clients have included Monica Lewinsky and the parents of slain Washington intern Chandra Levy. He and another member of the team, Daniel R. Meachum of Atlanta, have also represented actor Wesley Snipes.

Other members of the team are James D. 'Butch' Williams of Durham, N.C.; and Lawrence H. Woodward Jr. and Thomas B. Shuttleworth II, both of Virginia Beach. Those three also have represented celebrity clients, including a number of professional athletes.

In addition to dealing with the usual hoopla associated with celebrity cases, Vick's team must counteract the public outrage sparked by the gruesome details outlined in the 18-page indictment against Vick, legal experts say.

Passions were inflamed by allegations that the dogfighting ring executed underperforming pit bulls by drowning, hanging, electrocution and other brutal means.

'Second to injuring children, injuring pets is the worst,' said Harland W. Braun, a Los Angeles attorney who has represented actor Robert Blake and other celebrities. 'It's hard to know how to spin it.'

Sometimes, he said, public relations almost overshadows the legal aspect of a case - particularly when the defendant's career could be in jeopardy regardless of the outcome.

In the three months since investigators discovered evidence of a dogfighting operation on Vick's property in rural Surry County, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback has gone from one of the NFL's most popular players to the public face of a brutal and illegal bloodsport - even though prosecutors have yet to present any evidence against him.

Vick was lustily jeered and booed by protesters when he arrived Thursday at the federal courthouse in Richmond, where he pleaded not guilty and was released without bond.

'Anytime you have this kind of negative public reaction, it makes it more challenging,' Geragos said. 'You have to do something to try to stop the bleeding.'

In a statement read by Martin outside the courthouse, Vick pleaded with the public to resist a rush to judgment. The backlash seems to indicate the appeal is too late.

'The public has already tried him in the media,' Geragos said.

Vick got more bad news Friday when Nike announced it has suspended his contract and will pull products with his name off the shelves at company stores. And Reebok, the official uniform supplier of the NFL, also said it would stop selling Vick's replica jersey at retail stores and through its Web site.

Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard School of Law professor and lawyer whose clients have included O.J. Simpson and boxer Mike Tyson, said courts 'are subject to the power of public opinion.'

But he said Vick needs more than damage control.

'What Vick needs is a sophisticated legal defense, including a constitutional attack on the statute in this case,' Dershowitz said.

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University Law School professor, said the hiring of a legal 'dream team' carries the risk of internal conflict.

'There has to be a single lead attorney,' he said. 'Criminal defense attorneys are notorious for being lone wolves. It's sometimes difficult for well-known celebrity defense attorneys to work together for a coherent defense.'

Williams, one of the members of Vick's team, said that won't be a problem in this case.

'I don't foresee any of that,' he said. 'There is not a whole lot of big egos.'

He referred additional questions to Martin, who did not return a phone message.