Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to cannabis charges in a Russian court on Thursday, nearly five months after the WNBA star and two-time Olympic champion was detained at an airport near Moscow. Griner, who has been classified as wrongfully detained by the U.S. Department of State, now faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison as punishment for her conviction.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor,” Griner said in English, which was then translated into Russian for the court. “But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.”
“I’d like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare,” she added, according to a report from Reuters.
Griner, the star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested outside Moscow in February. In March, after Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine in an unprovoked attack, Russian authorities announced that Griner had been arrested while going through a customs checkpoint at an airport outside Moscow.
Her arrest has prompted an international outcry from celebrities, politicians, family, and other supporters, many of whom believe that Griner’s detention and trial are being used by Russia as political leverage as the conflict in Ukraine continues. Griner’s supporters hope that her guilty plea coupled with her wrongfully detained status in the eyes of the U.S. government will make her eligible for a prisoner swap between Russia and the U.S.
Arrested for Less Than a Gram of Weed
Griner’s trial on charges of importing vape cartridges with less than a gram of cannabis oil began in a courtroom near Moscow on Friday. Prosecutors argued that Griner put the vape cartridges, which contained a total of 0.7 grams of cannabis oil, into a backpack and a suitcase and intended to import them into the country, according to a report from the Russian state news agency TASS.
Griner’s attorneys, Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina, said that they expect the trial to conclude some time in August. Griner could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison under Russian law, although her legal team hopes that her guilty plea will result in leniency from the court. Boykov noted that samples taken from Griner and subjected to laboratory analysis did not reflect the presence of drugs in her system.
“She was clean, and she was tested,” the attorney said.
In a statement released to the media, Griner’s legal team said that it was the WNBA star’s decision to plead guilty to the charges she faced, adding that the move “sets an example of being brave.”
“She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people,” the statement reads. “Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
“We, as her defense, explained to her the possible consequences,” Blagovolina told reporters. “Brittney stressed that she committed the crime out of carelessness, getting ready to board a plane to Russia in a hurry, not intending to break Russian law. We certainly hope this circumstance, in combination with the defence evidence, will be taken into account when passing the sentence, and it will be mild.”
Griner Gets Response from Biden
On Wednesday, the White House revealed that President Joe Biden had received a hand-written letter from Griner pleading with the president to help secure her release from prison in Russia. The administration also noted that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had spoken with Griner’s wife Cherrelle Griner on the telephone and that the president had written a response to Griner’s letter. Cherrelle Griner said after the call that she was “grateful” to receive the phone call from Biden.
“While I will remain concerned and outspoken until (Brittney Griner) is back home, I am hopeful in knowing that the President read my wife’s letter and took the time to respond,” she said. “I know BG will be able to find comfort in knowing she has not been forgotten.”
After Thursday’s hearing, Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told reporters that she had spoken with Griner in the courtroom and shared the letter of response from Biden.
“She’s eating well, she’s able to read books and under the circumstances she’s doing well,” Rood said of Griner. “I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the U.S. government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained as well as the commitment of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all U.S. citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia.”
Griner’s next hearing in the trial is scheduled for July 14.