Alexander Zemlyanchenko / AP
Brittany Griner, who pleaded guilty to drug charges as her trial continued in a Russian court on Thursday, admitted she brought cannabis into the country, but said she was in a hurry and didn’t intend to break the law.
The Phoenix Mercury center and Olympic medalist could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Last Friday was Griner’s second court appearance since her trial began in earnest. A judge previously ordered a stay of the trial, which her lawyer said could last up to two months and involve multiple hearings by prosecutors before the defendant gets his turn. Another hearing is set for next Thursday.
Greiner was arrested on February 17 – a week before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine – after authorities at Sheremetyevo International Airport said they found cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage. She was traveling there because she plays for the Russian team during the US season, which many WNBA players do to supplement their income.
Prosecutor Griner purchased two cartridges containing 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil for her personal use prior to her trip. At last week’s hearing, there was testimony from two customs agents who were working at the airport when Greener’s bags were searched.
Two witnesses who were at the airport when Griner was arrested spent much of Thursday’s hearing testifying for the prosecution. Griner soon found himself cramped in a small house on the corner of a hot court.
After the prosecutor finished his case, Griner stood up and asked for a statement. She entered her guilty plea and asked for more time to prepare additional testimony.
“I would like to plead guilty to the charges brought against me,” she said. “But I had no intention of breaking any Russian law. I was in a hurry packing and the cartridges accidentally got into my bag.”
Asked why she pleaded guilty today, Greiner’s attorneys said it was her first chance to address the charges against her, and that she realized she was a role model for many and felt it was important to own up to her mistakes – they hope the judge will. It will be taken into account when making a decision on her case. Her lawyers will detail her actions and present her defense next week.
The Biden administration – which publicly announced in May that Griner had been wrongfully arrested – believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government ordered her arrest to use it as leverage, although the Kremlin says the case is not politically motivated.
Thursday’s hearing comes as the Biden administration faces growing public pressure to secure Greener’s release, particularly after Greener herself was convicted in 2015.
The White House announced that the president had contacted Greener’s wife, Cheryl (who faced criticism for not doing so sooner) and that she had read a draft of the letter he planned to send to her later that day. He reiterated that the release of Griner and other American prisoners is a top priority.
Following Thursday’s proceedings, US Deputy Secretary of State Elizabeth Rhoade told reporters that she had delivered Biden’s letter to Greener. She was able to speak with Griner again in court.
US Embassy Elizabeth Rhode has confirmed that she delivered a letter from President Biden to #BritneyGriner at the Moscow hearing today. My best guess from the courtroom: Griner played a role in her decision to plead guilty. Russia has said it will not exchange prisoners until the verdict. pic.twitter.com/buldueCMbP
— Charles Maines (@cwmiii3) July 7, 2022
“She said she’s eating well, she can read books and she’s doing well under conditions,” Rhode said.
Citing confirmation from an official source, Russia’s state agency Tass reported earlier that the discussions had focused on notorious criminal arms dealer Viktor Bov. He is known as the “merchant of death”.
On Thursday, however, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov indicated that a prisoner exchange with the United States would be difficult, Reuters reported. Referring to the letter he intended to send to Greener, Biden said that “bullying” around the issue was not helpful and that “this kind of correspondence is not helpful.”
Russia has said no prisoner exchange is possible until a verdict is handed down.
Maines reports from Russia. Tresman reports from Washington, DC