By Hunter Dublin | July 13, 2022
WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court on Thursday, her attorneys said, leaving her facing up to ten years in jail as her family and friends stepped up their pleas for the US government to do more to free the basketball player.
Griner, 31, was held at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport last February after Russian officers said they discovered vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner's lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told reporters outside the courthouse post-hearing on Thursday that the basketball star acknowledged having the vape canisters but said she brought them to Russia mistakenly.
"She was packing in a hurry, and it simply happened to end up in her bag," Boikov explained.
In answer to a query on why Griner chose to plead guilty, he stated she is a "responsible person."
"Considering her popularity, the fact that she is a role model to many people, particularly young people — she just believes she should be held accountable for her conduct," her other lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told reporters, adding that they were hoping for a more lenient decision.
Her last court appearance came after President Joe Biden attempted to reassure Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, that he was working as quickly as possible to win her release. Griner pleaded with the President in a poignant letter this week to bring her home.
After the hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that US embassy employees attending the trial were able to talk with Griner and present a letter from Biden. "We will not back down until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other unfairly jailed Americans are reunited with their families," he stated.
Adrienne Watson, a spokesman for the National Security Council, agreed.
"As we have already mentioned, we feel the Russian Federation is illegally holding Brittney Griner under terrible conditions," she said in a statement. Under the instruction of the President, the United States government continues to work actively, following every option, to return her securely to her family, friends, and loved ones as soon as possible. We will keep working to ensure Brittney's release and the release of Paul Whelan and other American citizens who are wrongly jailed or held captive in Russia and across the world."
Whelan, a former United States Marine, is serving a 16-year prison sentence for espionage. Whelan's twin, David, expressed optimism that "Griner's guilty plea may speed the end of the injustice she's facing. Russia will not work to bring her home unless there's a conviction and punishment."
On the other hand, Griner, a 6-foot-9 native of Houston, is a two-time Olympic gold winner and Phoenix Mercury center. She spent the offseason with a Russian basketball team.
She was taken into the courthouse in handcuffs on Thursday, wearing spectacles and a red T-shirt and jeans. Griner was subsequently joined in court by three US embassy personnel and her attorneys, with no TV cameras and only a few media.
Griner faces at least five years in jail under Russian criminal law, according to experts, although her choice to accept guilt may have been made to minimize the maximum 10-year term.
According to William E. Butler, author of "Russian Law and Legal Institutions" and professor at Penn State Dickinson Law, her defenders might claim that she deserves less than the statutory five years.
"The question now will be whether there are reasons to give her less than five years," Butler added.
Despite reports in Russian state media in May that Griner may be traded for convicted Russian weapons dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year jail sentence in the United States, Washington has not formally commented on prospective prisoner exchanges.
According to the Russian news outlet Tass, Russia's foreign ministry stated Thursday that "publicity and hype" in the media and online about Americans jailed in Russia impedes cooperation between Moscow and the US on prisoner swaps.
Before Griner's guilty plea, deputy foreign ministry spokesperson Alexey Zaitsev said she was detained for "a serious violation, substantiated by solid evidence." Still, she was allowed to submit an appeal and seek pardon. Regarding a hypothetical prisoner swap, Zaitsev stated that the court would first have to reach a decision, which he believed would take at least a month.
Griner's next court appearance is set for next Thursday.