RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Michael Vick surrendered to U.S. marshals three weeks before he was to be sentenced for a federal dogfighting charge, and a legal expert said it’s unclear whether the move will soften his punishment.

“It’s kind of like reading tea leaves knowing what’s the exact impact on the judge,” said Ronald Bacigal, a University of Richmond law professor who specializes in criminal law and criminal procedure.

Vick pleaded guilty in August to a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge after his three co-defendants pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with authorities.

Federal sentencing guidelines suggest he could expect to serve a year to 18 months, but Vick, who has admitted bankrolling the Bad Newz Kennels, faces a maximum of five years in prison.

The Atlanta Falcons quarterback is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 10 but worked out a deal “to voluntarily enter custody prior to his sentencing hearing,” according to a court document.

Vick’s lawyer, Billy Martin, explained the unexpected move as yet another step in the disgraced star’s public repentance for his involvement in a bloody dogfighting ring.

“From the beginning, Mr. Vick has accepted responsibility for his actions, and his self-surrender further demonstrates that acceptance,” Martin said in a statement. “Michael wants to again apologize to everyone who has been hurt in this matter, and he thanks all of the people who have offered him and his family prayers and support during this time.”

The order filed in U.S. District Court said Vick was taken into custody Monday “based solely on his desire to begin his period of incarceration prior to his sentencing hearing and not because of violation of any condition of his bond.”

In an e-mail sent to the AP, the U.S. attorney’s office confirmed Vick’s surrender but declined further comment.

Vick’s troubles began in April when authorities conducting a drug investigation of a cousin seized dozens of dogs, most of them pit bulls, from a Surry County property, along with equipment linked to dogfighting.

It’s there that the dogfighting enterprise known as Bad Newz Kennels operated since 2001 on 15 acres of land Vick owned.

Suspended indefinitely by the NFL without pay, Vick solemnly apologized for his actions before cameras in late August — only to gain more negative attention when he tested positive in September for marijuana, a violation of U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson’s order that Vick stay clean in exchange for being allowed to be free.

Vick is also being sued for more than $4 million by banks claiming he defaulted on loans and might have to repay nearly $20 million in NFL signing bonus money.

The gruesome details outlined in the federal indictment — dogs were hanged, drowned and electrocuted — fueled a public backlash against the Falcons’ star player and cost him several lucrative endorsement deals, even before he agreed to plead guilty.

In his written plea, Vick admitted helping kill six to eight pit bulls and supplying money for gambling on the fights. He said he did not personally place any bets or share in any winnings, but merely associating with gambling can result in a lifetime ban under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

Vick and his co-defendants also face state felony charges. Vick has been charged with two state felonies — beating or killing or causing dogs to fight other dogs and engaging in or promoting dogfighting. Each felony is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Vick is being held at Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw until his sentencing, U.S. marshals told The Associated Press. The mixed-gender facility houses about 450 inmates.

Bacigal said Vick may have surrendered in an attempt to show the judge he’s taken responsibility for his mistakes — but there are no real direct legal benefits to the move.

“I don’t think there’s any benefits except getting (the sentence) started,” Bacigal said. “I would think he’s purely thinking about timing as far as when he can get back to his football.”

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