WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted Thursday in Russia of cannabis possession and sentenced to nine years in prison — despite her insistence that she “made an honest mistake” and her tearful pleas for mercy.
Standing in a cage reserved for defendants at the Khimki court outside Moscow, Griner, 31, remained stone-faced upon hearing the verdict.
As part of the punishment phase, Griner also will be required to pay a $16,300 fine. Asked if she understood the sentence, Griner replied in English: “Yes, I understand, your honor.”
Later, as she was being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Griner told a gaggle of reporters: “I love my family.”
Minutes after sentencing, the White House released a statement on behalf of President Biden, condemning the outcome of Griner’s drug trial.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” the statement read. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
Biden vowed to “work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to bring Griner and American Paul Whelan, who is also jailed in Russia, home “as soon as possible.”
Speaking outside of the courthouse, Griner’s Russian legal team said they have not been contacted about efforts to facilitate a prisoner exchange.
“Maybe we’ll hear something. I don’t know. It has not been discussed with us,” attorney Maria Blagovolina said
Griner’s lawyer said that her client’s mood following the verdict was “bad” and she was feeling “disheartened.” She said they were “very surprised” by the verdict and planned to appeal the case.
“We certainly believe this sentencing does not match the act that was committed,” Blagovolina said. “Moreover, it goes completely against legal precedent related to this statute, taking into consideration the quantity (of cannabis) and Griner’s admission of guilt.”
She added: “We are definitely going to appeal. We certainly disagree, are surprised and disappointed with the Khimki court’s ruling today.”
Earlier at Thursday’s hearing, Griner, with her voice quivering, acknowledged her “mistake” and pleaded for leniency.
“I want the court to understand that this was an honest mistake that I made while rushing, under stress, trying to recover from COVID and just trying to get back to my team,” Griner said, referring to her packing vape cartridges in her luggage on her way to Russia in February.
“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” she continued. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
Griner, who pleaded guilty to the charges, said she did not intend to break Russian law, and that her parents had taught her to take ownership of her errors.
In the course of her trial, Griner testified that she inadvertently placed cannabis cartridges into her bag while “stress-packing” for her trip to Russia, where she was contracted to play basketball for a local team during WNBA’s off-season.
The two-time Olympic champion insisted that she did not plan to bring the vape cartridges containing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil to Russia, or use them there, because she was aware of local drug laws.
Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury center have presented character witnesses from the Russian team and written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed her cannabis for pain treatment.
Defense attorney Maria Blagovolina claimed that Griner brought the cartridges with her to Russia inadvertently and only used cannabis as medicine and only while in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.
A prosecutor, Nikolai Vlasenko, argued that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately.
Griner’s lawyer, Blagovolina, did not rule out the possibility of petitioning for clemency if Griner’s appeal attempt fails, saying: “We’ll do everything possible to get her freed. She certainly does not deserve to serve 9 years.”
Griner on Thursday passed through her attorneys a private message to her family in the US, which was not shared with the media.
“The family wants her to come home.” Blagovolina, her attorney, said. “Everyone is waiting for her.”
Her guilty verdict and 9-year sentence were met with universal condemnation in American diplomatic and government circles.
Elizabeth Rood, Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Moscow, who followed Griner’s trial and attended the hearing on Thursday, delivered a statement outside the Khimki courthouse, in which she called the WNBA star’s sentencing “a miscarriage of justice.”
“The US Department of State has determined that Ms. Griner was wrongly detained,” Rood said. “Nothing in today’s decision changes that determination.”
She added that Secretary of State Antony Blinken, President Biden and the entire American government “remain committed to bringing Ms. Griner home safely to her family, friends and loved ones.”
Blinken, who was attending an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gala dinner in Cambodia when the verdict was announced in Russia, released a statement, saying that Griner sentencing “compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention.”
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said in an interview with MSNBC that Blinken will likely try to speak about Griner with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the meeting in Cambodia.
“I have no doubt that if he has an opportunity to buttonhole Mr. Lavrov, he will do so. And if he doesn’t, if it doesn’t just happen organically, I’m sure Secretary Blinken will reach out and have that communication,” Kirby said.
Russian officials have scoffed at US statements about the case, saying they’ve shown disrespect for Russian law. They remained poker-faced, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without releases of speculative information.”
Before Griner’s trial began in July, the State Department designated her as “wrongfully detained,” moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
Then last week, in an extraordinary move, Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Whelan would be traded for Viktor Bout, a jailed arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”1358
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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia has made a “bad faith” response to the US government’s offer, a counteroffer that American officials don’t regard as serious. She declined to elaborate.
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