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Falcons star pleads not guilty to dogfighting charges

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -Michael Vick will spend the next four months defending himself against federal dogfighting charges instead of mastering a new coach's playbook and dissecting game film of opposing defenses.

The Atlanta Falcons quarterback's elite five-member legal team doesn't expect it to be easy and his career could be in jeopardy.

"This is going to be a hard-fought trial," defense attorney Billy Martin told reporters Thursday after Vick pleaded not guilty to participating in a dogfighting ring that allegedly executed underperforming pit bulls by hanging, electrocution or other brutal means.

Three co-defendants also pleaded not guilty. U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson set the trial of all four for Nov. 26 - four days after the 11th of 16 regular-season games the Falcons will play under new coach Bobby Petrino.

The ghastly activities outlined in an 18-page indictment returned last week have sparked widespread outrage. Vick's arrival at the federal courthouse was greeted by protesters holding signs with messages like "Neuter Mike Vick" and "Prosecute All Dogfighters." The protesters' boos and jeers drowned out shouts of encouragement from badly outnumbered Vick supporters.

In a written statement, Vick declared his innocence and pleaded with the public to give him the benefit of the doubt until his day in court.

"I take these charges very seriously and look forward to clearing my good name," Vick said in the statement, which Martin read to reporters. "I respectfully ask all of you to hold your judgment until all of the facts are shown."

He also apologized to his Falcons teammates and to his mother "for what she has had to go through in this most trying of times."

Vick's mother, Brenda Boddie, stood next to Martin as he read the statement but did not speak. The lawyers did not answer questions.

Earlier, in court, Hudson asked Vick how he pleaded to a charge of conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities.

"Not guilty," the 27-year-old NFL star said firmly.

He asked for a trial by jury, as did his co-defendants.

If convicted, Vick faces up to five years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

Vick was released without bond, but with a series of conditions to meet, including the surrender of his passport, a pledge not to travel outside the immediate area of his primary residence without court approval, and to not sell or possess any dog.

He also was ordered to surrender any animal breeder or kennel licenses.

The court appearance came on the day the Falcons opened training camp. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has barred Vick from attending camp and asked the Falcons to withhold any punishment while the league investigates.

Team owner Arthur Blank said the team wanted to suspend Vick for four games, the maximum penalty a team can assess a player, but held off at Goodell's request. Blank has told his star quarterback to concentrate on his legal problems, not football.

The case began April 25 when investigators conducting a drug search at a massive home Vick built in rural Surry County found 66 dogs, including 55 pit bulls, and items typically used in dogfighting. They included a "rape stand" that holds aggressive dogs in place for mating and a "breakstick" used to pry open a dog's mouth.

Vick contended he knew nothing about a dogfighting operation at the home, where one of his cousins lived, and said he rarely visited. He also blamed friends and family members for taking advantage of his generosity and pledged to be more scrupulous.

His comments Thursday were his first on the case since then.

Charged along with Vick are Purnell A. Peace, 35, of Virginia Beach; Quanis L. Phillips, 28, of Atlanta; and Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton. All three have retained their own lawyers.

According to the indictment filed July 17, dogs not killed in the fighting pit were often shot, hanged, drowned or, in one case, slammed to the ground. The document says Vick was consulted before one losing dog was wet down and electrocuted.

It alleges that the dogfighting operation began in 2001, not long after Vick was the first overall selection in the NFL draft. His first contract was for $62 million. In 2004, the former Virginia Tech standout signed a 10-year, $130 million deal, then the richest in league history.

The indictment says the fights offered purses as high as $26,000, and that Vick once paid $23,000 to the owner of two pit bulls that had beaten Bad Newz Kennels dogs.

That owner is one of four cooperating witnesses cited in the document.

Associated Press Writers Hank Kurz, Dionne Walker and Michael Felberbaum contributed to this report.

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