Brittney Griner: WNBA star apologizes to Russian court ahead of verdict in drug trafficking trial

Detained WNBA star Brittney Griner apologized and asked for clemency in an emotional speech outside a Russian court during her drug trafficking trial on Thursday ahead of an expected verdict.

Griner said she had no intention of breaking Russian law and that bringing a vape cartridge with traces of drugs was a mistake.

“That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges. I understand everything that was said against me, the charges against me and that’s why I pleaded guilty but I had no intention of infringing Russian laws,” she said.

A verdict is expected as early as 10:45 a.m. ET.

[Original story, published 9:09 a.m. ET]

Closing arguments began in the WNBA star Brittney Griner’s drug trafficking case in Russia on Thursday and a verdict is expected later in the day, his lawyer said in a statement to the media.

Griner arrived in court in handcuffs on Thursday and was escorted by Russian officers to the defendant’s cage. Once untied, she spoke with her legal team, then held up a photo of the UMMC Yekaterinburg basketball team, the Russian team she played for during the WNBA offseason.

The hearing at the Khimki city courthouse comes six months after Griner, 31, was arrested at a Moscow airport and charged by Russian prosecutors with attempting to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in his luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
The two-time American Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges last month in what her lawyers say is an attempt to take responsibility and receive leniency if she is ultimately found guilty and sentenced.
“Given the nature of his case, the insignificant amount of (Griner’s) substance and personality, and the history of positive contributions to world and Russian sport, the defense hopes the plea will be considered by the court. as a mitigating circumstance and that there will be no severe penalty” his legal team said last month.

In closing arguments Thursday, a prosecutor asked for 9.5 years in prison for Griner, according to defense attorney Maria Blagovolina, a partner at law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners.

In response, Blagovolina argued that Griner had never used marijuana in Russia and never intended to. She didn’t need to bring the vape cartridges to Russia, the lawyer added.

All this confirms the complete lack of intent in his actions, argued Blagovolina. Although Griner has used medical marijuana before, it was only at her home in Arizona, rare and only with a doctor’s prescription, she added. She couldn’t have known how strict the laws were in Russia, Blagovolina said.

Griner said in a brief remark during the hearing that she agreed with everything her defense attorneys said in court.

Another of Griner’s lawyers, Alexander Boykov, argued that Griner was not given the opportunity to properly review court documents. He said that the Russian constitution guarantees everyone the right to use their mother tongue and the free choice of the language of communication.

Examination of substance in Brittney Griner's vape cartridges violated Russian law, defense expert says

Boykov cited a case where a language interpreter provided to Griner flipped through a long document offered by an investigator for translation, then told Griner, “Basically, that means you’re guilty.”

The US State Department maintains that Griner is being wrongfully detained, and her supporters have called for her release and for the US to take further action to try to free her from the country, possibly as a part of a proposed prisoner exchange.

“She’s still focused and she’s still nervous. And she still knows the end is near, and of course she heard the news, so she hopes that one day she can come home, and we hope too.” , Blagovolina said on Tuesday.

The charge d’affaires of the US Embassy in Russia, Elizabeth Rood, arrived in court Thursday ahead of the hearing. She appeared in court throughout the trial and said on Tuesday that the United States “will continue to support Miss Griner through every step of this process and for as long as it takes to bring her home to the United States in safe”.

How was the trial

Griner’s lawyers have already made some arguments undermining the prosecution’s case and claiming the basketball player’s detention was not handled properly after she was arrested on February 17 by Sheremetyevo International Airport staff.

His detention, search and arrest were “inappropriate”, Boykov said last week, noting that more details would be revealed during closing arguments.

After being arrested at the airport, Griner was asked to sign documents that she did not understand, she testified. At first, she says, she used Google Translate on her phone, but was later moved to another room where her phone was taken and made to sign more documents.

No attorney was present, Griner testified, and his rights were not explained to him. These rights would include access to a lawyer once detained and the right to know what she was suspected of. According to Russian law, she should have been informed of her rights within three hours of her arrest.

On Tuesday, at the seventh hearing in his case, a defense expert testified that the examination of the substance in Griner’s vaping cartridges did not comply with Russian law. Blagovolina also told CNN that experts on his team had identified “a few flaws” in the machines used to measure the substance.

At trial, Griner testified that she had a medical prescription for medical cannabis and had no intention of smuggling the drug into Russia. After her detention in February, she was tested for drugs and was clean, her lawyers previously said.

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In her testimony, Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them,” Blagovolina said after last week’s hearing.

“We continue to insist that, indiscreetly, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances authorized for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov, of the Moscow Law Center, said.

The trial took place against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the country’s disputes with the United States and Europe.

Last week, CNN reported that President Joe Biden’s administration proposed a prisoner exchange with Russiaoffering to free a convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in exchange for Griner and another American detainee, Paul Whelan. Russian officials countered the American offermultiple sources familiar with the talks said, but U.S. officials did not accept the request as a legitimate counter-offer.

The Kremlin also warned on Tuesday that US “megaphone diplomacy” will not help negotiations for a prisoner swap involving Griner. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow believed the talks should be “low-key”.

Griner’s family, supporters and WNBA teammates have continued to express messages of solidarity and hope as they await the conclusion of the trial. His WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, is scheduled to face the Connecticut Sun Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET.

Ahead of the trial last week, the WNBA players union tweeted“Dear BG… It’s early in Moscow. Our day is ending and yours is just beginning. Not a day, not an hour goes by that you are not in our minds and in our hearts.”

CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Travis Caldwell, Dakin Andone, Kylie Atwood, Evan Perez, Jennifer Hansler, Natasha Bertrand, Frederik Pleitgen, Chris Liakos and Masha Angelova contributed to this report.

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