(CNN) -- One of the co-defendants in the Michael Vick federal dogfighting case pleaded guilty on Monday and pledged to fully cooperate with prosecutors. Tony Taylor, 34, of Hampton, Virginia, entered the guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Richmond. He will be sentenced December 14.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says the first defendant to flip usually gets the best plea deal.
We asked CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin for some background on how plea bargains work. Toobin does not know the specifics of Tony Taylor's plea bargain, but talked to us in general terms.
CNN.com: Why do people make plea deals?
Toobin: What the prosecutors are doing here is federal prosecution 101. This is the basics of how almost every major case against multiple defendants works.
Prosecutors always have a specific target in mind. All defendants are not created equal. They want some more than others. And they work their way up the chain, they offer good deals to the lesser defendants in return for testimony against the high-profile defendants. ...
You certainly indict multiple people in the hope that some will flip, and it looks like one has flipped against Michael Vick. And cases with cooperators are stronger than cases without.
CNN.com: Would you think that prosecutors contacted Taylor's attorneys, or his attorneys contacted prosecutors?
Toobin: The first initiative is usually taken by the defense attorneys. The prosecutors generally wait by the phone, but it usually doesn't take long to ring.
CNN.com: Is the first person to flip likely to get the best deal?
Toobin: Yes. Almost always the first person to cut a deal gets the best deal and the deals get worse as you get closer to trial, which is why there's sometimes a race to plea.
CNN.com: Does a plea deal always strengthen the prosecution?
Toobin: The big variable you don't know is how good a witness the person will be. Will the defendant who pled guilty and agreed to cooperate prove to be a persuasive witness?
But often they are, because they're insiders. They know how a conspiracy worked. They know facts that only insiders could know. And juries tend to believe someone who says, "Yeah, I was part of the conspiracy too, and this is how it worked. I was there, and I saw the dogfights, and I participated, and I did terrible things as well, and now I'm coming clean, and I'm telling you about the other people involved."
There is a customary way to attack these cooperators as well. The cross-examination of a cooperator tends always to be the high point of a trial, because defense attorneys recognize that if the jury believes the cooperator, their client is going to get convicted.
CNN.com: And it wouldn't be hard to attack the cooperator's credibility...
Toobin: Yeah -- "You cut a deal, you're lying to save your own skin, you're implicating the higher-up to save your own skin" -- and sometimes it's true, sometimes they do lie.
CNN.com: Where does this leave Taylor's defense team?
Toobin: It's now in his interest to cooperate as truthfully and as enthusiastically as possible, because judges pay a great deal of attention to the government's letter describing the cooperation in deciding what sentence to give. Judges reward cooperators a lot.
CNN.com: Could there be additional charges against the other three?
Toobin: Sure, there could be a superseding indictment, the cooperator could tell about things the government didn't know about and they decide to add more charges. That happens a lot.
CNN.com: And that would happen between now and the trial?
Toobin: Yeah. Trial dates tend to be flexible. That trial date may not happen.
Vick is really between a rock and a hard place here, because most dogfighting cases end in plea bargains that keep the defendants out of jail, they get them probation. And in normal circumstances certainly I would imagine Vick's lawyers would be looking for that kind of deal.
However Vick is not just concerned about his criminal exposure, he has to deal with his football career. How can he plead guilty and preserve his football career? Does he go to trial in a case that's going to be probably very difficult to defend? Or does he plea and try to salvage some kind of football career? Or does he go to trial and get convicted and have the worst of all possibilities? E-mail to a friend
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