WNBA star Brittney Griner pleads GUILTY to drug charges at trial in Russia and now faces 10 years in prison: Tells judge ‘I didn’t want to break the law’ and clutches photo of her wife
WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges and now faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison
She told the judge: ‘I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law’
Griner’s legal plea could be a defense strategy. Russian criminal trials are notoriously difficult for defendants, and experts have speculated that Griner could face retribution from authorities if she were to plead innocent
Griner was arrested in February after she was allegedly caught carrying two vape cartridges with cannabis oil in them at a Moscow airport. Since then, her supporters have pressured Joe Biden to negotiate her release
Griner is considered by the US to be wrongfully detained amid tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Griner has been in custody since her arrest. A Russian judge has extended her detention until December 20
On Wednesday, Reverend Al Sharpton promised to make the trip to Moscow to visit her behind bars
WNBA star Brittney Griner, 31, Thursday pled guilty to drug charges in Moscow and now faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison.
At Griner’s hearing on Thursday, the 6-foot-9 All-Star center was led into the courtroom handcuffed and dressed in a red t-shirt with red pants. She was also seen clutching a water bottle as well as a printed photo of her wife, Cherelle Griner.
‘I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,’ Griner said, adding ‘I’d like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare.’
Proceedings was in Russian, the defendant spoke English which was then translated into Russian, Reuters reports.
Griner was arrested in February after she was allegedly caught carrying two vape cartridges with cannabis oil in them at a Moscow airport. She has been held in custody since then.
She went on trial July 1, four and a half months after her arrest on charges of possessing cannabis oil. The All-Star was traveling in Russia because, like many WNBA players, she’s plays overseas during the offseason. In Griner’s case, she plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg, on the eastern edge of the European continent.
Griner is considered by the United States to be wrongfully detained, and her guilty plea could be more of a legal strategy than a truthful admission of wrongdoing. The pro athlete’s lawyers Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina told journalists Thursday that they expect the court to take into account their client’s guilty plea and hope for leniency
Buttressing the wisdom in the strategy, William Pomeranz, an expert on Russian law, told ESPN that defendants have little chance of being found innocent at criminal trials in the country. In fact, fewer than 1 percent of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in U.S. courts, acquittals can be overturned.
As Pomeranz explained, since the trail is ‘a foregone conclusion,’ Griner stood a better chance of pleading guilty in order to reduce her sentence.
‘Traditionally, the best defense is to admit your guilt and hope you get a lesser sentence,’ Pomeranz said. ‘There’s not a lot of examples of people raising strong defenses and getting acquitted.’
Furthermore, pleading innocent could result in authorities retaliating against her by making her life in a Russian prison more miserable than it already is, experts told ESPN.
Griner was arrested in February after she was allegedly caught carrying two vape cartridges with cannabis oil in them at a Moscow airport. She has been held in custody since then. In those four months there has been growing pressure on the Biden administration to secure her release, with Griner’s supporters encouraging a prisoner swap in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.
Hopes built on expedited exchange may have been deflated on Thursday, after a Russian official said that it is difficult to exchange prisoners with the United States and suggested Washington be silent about the fate of Griner.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Sergei Ryabkov said ‘hype’ around the case does not help, urging the US to cease correspondence with the basketball player who recently stood trial in Russia.
Meanwhile, Reverend Al Sharpton has promised to fly to the Eastern European country to meet with Griner behind bars for a ‘clergy visit.’
‘It’s our intention to go to Russia and seek a clergy visit,’ Sharpton told MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell. ‘Anybody in any civilized world or any civilized nation can get visits from the clergy.’
He said that Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, had been frustrated trying to set up a phone call with the WNBA player.
‘We need to go face to face to make sure that she’s all right,’ Sharpton said, adding, ‘We cannot sit by and ignore the fact that she has been marginalized and we cannot explain why. We want to see that she is safe and we want to make sure that the government of the United States maker her a priority.’
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has publicly asked the Biden administration to secure her release. Last week, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made a phone call to her to assure her that they are working to help her
Last week, Griner wrote a letter to Biden to in which she pleaded with him to help secure her release.
‘As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,’ Griner wrote in the letter.
‘I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees,’ Griner wrote. ‘Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you.
‘I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.’
Her letter came after Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made a phone call to her wife, Cherelle, to ‘reassure her’ they are working to get her released.
‘The President called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other US nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world,’ the White House said.
The initial session of the trial, which was adjourned until July 7, offered the most extensive public interaction between Griner and reporters since the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Police have said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil when detained at the airport. *
The state-owned Tass news agency quoted Griner as saying in court that she understood the charges against her. Asked by the judge if she wanted to enter a plea, Griner responded, ‘At this moment, no, your honor. At a later date,’ according to Mediazona, an independent news site known for its extensive coverage of high-profile court cases.
Two witnesses were questioned by the prosecution: an airport customs official, who spoke in open court, and an unidentified witness in a closed session, according to the state news agency RIA-Novosti. The trial was then adjourned, it said, when two other witnesses did not show up.
Alexander Boykov, an attorney for Griner, said outside court that he did not want to comment ‘on the specifics of the case and on the charges’ because it was too early to do so.
US basketball star Griner appears in Russian court
Boykov also told RIA-Novosti that she has been exercising and taking walks in the detention area. The Russian website Business FM said that Griner, who smiled at times at reporters, said she wishes she could work out more and that she was struggling because she doesn’t understand Russian. Besides the WNBA’s Mercury, she played in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, was in court and said she spoke with Griner, who ‘is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances.’
‘The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Brittney Griner,’ Rood said. ‘The practice of wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad.’
She said the U.S. government, from its highest levels, ‘is working hard to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals home safely.’
At a closed-door preliminary hearing last week, Griner’s detention was extended for another six months, to December 20.
Her case comes at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations. She was arrested less than a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, which aggravated already high tensions between the two countries. The U.S. then imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow, and Russia denounced the U.S. for sending weapons to Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday denied politics played a role in Griner’s detention and prosecution.
‘The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances,’ Peskov told reporters. ‘In view of what I’ve said, it can’t be politically motivated,’ he added.
Griner’s supporters have encouraged a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.
Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that she could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed ‘the Merchant of Death,’ who is serving a 25-year sentence on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Griner’s case – which involves alleged possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil – and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to the U.S.
Others have suggested that she could be traded along with Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the U.S. has repeatedly described as a setup.