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Street Theater

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Bound in ankle manacles, six prisoners in gray, horizontal-striped jumpsuits shuffle out of the federal courthouse downtown toward a gray van waiting in the late-afternoon sun.

Bank Street cuts a gully between the court building and the foot of the golf-course greenery of the newly renovated Capitol. Even though the block is nearly devoid of pedestrians on this Wednesday evening, an older inmate shields his face with papers he's carrying and pulling up his shirt, reveals a round, fuzzy belly.

A slender prisoner brings up the rear. He's down a few teeth and oddly cheerful as he looks across the street and surveys the cavalry: an orderly row of some two dozen news trucks with satellite dishes awash in the white noise of humming generators.

"Lights, camera, action," he says, before ducking into the van.

The big news, of course, is that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick will arrive the next day, July 26. He and three friends -- Purnell A. Peace, Quanis L. Phillips and Tony Taylor — will enter not guilty pleas in a courtroom where cameras aren't allowed. News outlets from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta and beyond have sent crews to wait outside the building for a 25-minute bond hearing. It's first-come, first-served.

News media are trying to catch the next edition of a major athlete starring in his own legal thriller. The streets and sidewalks have become metaphorical stands — the spectators jostling, jeering and cheering in a roundabout display of hometown pride.

The judge is known to be a straight shooter, and Richmond is in the most conservative and rarely overturned federal circuit: the Fourth. The court assures its defendants a speedy trial with its famous "rocket docket," though Vick's lawyers protest the first date of Oct. 4. The judge gives them a breather, setting the date for Nov. 26. U.S. attorneys promise more indictments by the end of the summer.

The federal prosecutors are typically tight-lipped. In those circumstances, the text of the indictment itself acts as the press release, former Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks says.

The clipped tone of the legalese lends itself to drama. Consider paragraph 13, which reads, "In or about February 2002, Peace executed the pit bull that did not perform well in the 'testing' session by shooting it with a .22 caliber pistol."

As most people seem to know by now, the men are charged with running an illegal dog-fighting ring on Vick's property in Surry County. The charges carry a maximum punishment of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The next morning, bracing for press and protesters, Richmond police close off a section of 10th Street and put up barricades along Main where the defendants are expected to enter the building. The media-to-civilian ratio is a crushing 4-to-1, full but not packed. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals pass out posters showing a dog missing an eye. The Y101 DJs are there dressed as dogs, and the lunchtime cart vendors that usually troll the downtown office buildings give the streets a festival feel.

"Paris Hilton East," snorts Mark Davis, an assistant attorney general, as he passes by the news trucks on the way to his Main Street office.

At the corner of 10th and Main streets, a pod of protesters have the law on their minds, as well. Tasha Levin, a 19-year-old T.G.I. Friday's employee, says she's not really a Michael Vick fan — "just a fan of the Constitution." She and two friends drove nine hours straight from Boston, saying they were sick of the negative press coverage and that people should withhold judgment until the trial is over. The press swarms.

The crowd swells at lunch when office workers saunter onto the streets. PETA supporters jockey for position along the police barricade. Among them is Wilhemina Carter, a German immigrant who now works as a nurse in Richmond. She's tall and glamorous with Tammy Faye mascara, blue eyes and platinum blond hair swept up behind thick bangs. A Humane Society volunteer, she's wearing white linen pants and a white T-shirt, and is adamant that people who abuse animals are likely to abuse humans as well. She lifts a pant leg to show puncture wounds from a cat she rescued.

"He's an attack kitty," she says. "I'm an attack kitty, too."

Although the PETA protesters staked out the street-side territory, the sidewalk is increasingly populated by people who, while not exactly pro-Vick, unmistakably represent the opposition.

John Brown wears a T-shirt with a photograph from the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., race riots — policemen holding the leash of a dog attacking a black protester. "I certainly hope we don't have a double standard when it comes to dogs," he says. "Where was PETA in 1963?"

Jean Morris, an employee of the city's public utilities office, echoes the concern that this is the kind of treatment a high-profile, well-paid African-American can expect in this country.

"I grew up in Caroline County," she says. "If anybody is interested, I can take them up there and show them a lot of dog fights. [The prosecutor] may not want to come because he might not want to see who's participating. They do not look like Michael Vick."

This isn't Richmond's first brush with dog fighting. Michelle Welch, a former prosecutor in the Commonwealth's Attorney Office, remembers a few such cases. She now works in the Attorney General's Office after losing her bid to become Richmond commonwealth's attorney to Michael Herring in 2005.

The biggest was a 2005 case wherein Welch won a $2,500 fine and a 12-month sentence against Church Hill resident Richard Robinson. The case ended with a surprise twist when the dogs he had bred and abused were stolen from the city pound the night after the trial.

In the Robinson case, a man named Stacey Miller testified as an expert in "dog weight pulling" — something akin to human weight-lifting — the defense's alternative explanation for the dog-fighting equipment found on Robinson's property. Last month Miller himself was sentenced to two years in prison for dog fighting.

Downtown, as time for the Vick hearing draws closer, the line that had wrapped around the courthouse begins filing in. Speculation among cameramen begins over which entrance Vick will enter. The confusion frustrates the CNN crew members, though they're glad to be out of the White House press room and in the sunshine for a day.

A block of about a dozen attorneys marching in formation enters the building. Finally a black Ford Excursion pulls up, trailed by a Ford Explorer. Vick hops out wearing a suit, having ditched the cornrows for a shaved head. Under cover of the vehicles, a U.S. marshal escorts him up the ramp. The crowd makes a noise Vick must have found familiar, each side cheering for its own team. The scene presents a mix of camera lust and rubbernecking set against some good old-fashioned, stand-your-ground moxie, too.

Then, finally, they get the circus they'd all been waiting for.

A coterie of protesters appears, wearing black clothes and ribbons affixed with dog bones. Among them is a woman in a vintage-looking black dress and veil. A man with greasy gray hair emerges from the crowd wearing a black-and-white-striped prison costume with a novelty ball and chain.

Jean Morris from Caroline County gets in front of a news camera and tells viewers they are witnessing a high-tech lynching. Wilhemina "Attack Kitty" Carter disagrees and lunges, shouting "Shame, shame, shame" and calling Morris "ghetto trash."

The crowd instinctively backs up and circles, schoolyard-style. Somewhere in the crowd, a dog barks. S

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