Updated at: 04/08/2013 3:05 PM
By JOHN ZENOR
(AP) OPELIKA, Ala. - Former Auburn defensive back Mike McNeil was sentenced to serve at least three years in prison Monday after pleading guilty to first-degree robbery for an incident his attorney characterized as "possibly a prank."
Lee County Circuit Judge Christopher Hughes accepted McNeil’s plea deal Monday as his trial was set to begin. Under the deal, McNeil received a 15-year split sentence: He must serve three years, plus three years of supervised probation, and pay $2,000 in restitution. If he violates any terms, the judge could sentence him to the remainder of the 15 years.
McNeil, 24, and three teammates from the Tigers’ 2010 national championship team were charged with armed robbery and dismissed from the team in March 2011. Antonio Goodwin is serving a 15-year sentence while Dakota Mosley and Shaun Kitchens are awaiting trial.
The judge accepted a "best-interest" plea where McNeil didn’t have to admit guilt. McNeil responded "Yes, sir" when Hughes asked if he believed prosecutors had enough evidence to produce a guilty plea.
McNeil’s attorney, Ben Hand, said there was some evidence the alleged robbery at a mobile home was a prank that went awry.
"If you look back at Mike’s history, he has a real good history," Hand said. "He worked with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, did a lot of good things. Worked with children in a hospital, always had a good reputation. And what could be portrayed as possibly a prank ended up very bad.
"He was distressed about it. Any time you’re facing going to prison, that’s tough. But he understood what the law was and understood what could have happened."
Witnesses at Goodwin’s trial had testified that McNeil had a gun in the robbery at a mobile home. Hand said information could have come out at trial to support the contention that it was a prank. He said "everybody seemed to know everybody" at the home, but some people were present that they didn’t realize would be there.
"He was taken over there by these other guys," Hand said. "Somebody else was driving. He didn’t know what was going to happen and when the other guys went into the trailer and he went in to get them out, it all went bad from there as far as leaving, and (there was) a set of facts that were difficult to prove otherwise."
McNeil, who wore a gray suit and a short haircut after appearing in court Friday with dreadlocks, nodded to family members while he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. Prosecutors agreed not to pursue other charges against McNeil, who was initially charged with five counts of first-degree robbery.
The plea also requires him to "testify truthfully" against other defendants in the case if called as a witness. If convicted, McNeil could have served at least 20 years.
Lee County District Attorney Robbie Treese declined to comment, citing the pending cases.
McNeil was a starting safety who had 14 tackles in Auburn’s win over Oregon in the BCS championship game in January 2011.
Hand said he and McNeil met for "hours" Sunday with retired federal judge U.W. Clemon, who agreed that the player should accept the plea. McNeil visited with his young daughter after that.
"He went to see her last night, spent some time with her and told her he’d see her in 3 years," Hand said.
McNeil made headlines last week when he raised allegations that a failing grade was changed before the 2010 season and that he received about $400 from then-assistant coach Will Muschamp after a practice. Muschamp, now Florida’s head coach, has denied making the payment through a spokesman.
Auburn officials have said McNeil’s grade was changed because absences that affected his grade were medically excused.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)