In his last words at the trial in Russia, the American basketball star said that he had made an “honest mistake and I hope that your decision does not end my life.”
KHIMKI, Russia — An emotional Brittney Griner apologized in a Russian court Thursday as her drug possession trial came to a close on Thursday, with prosecutors calling for the U.S. basketball star to be found guilty and sentenced to 9 1/2 years in prison in the highest-profile case level of American-Russian diplomacy.
Later that day, the judge was about to issue an unusually quick verdict and conviction, but not certain, Griner made a final appeal to the court. She said she had no intention of breaking the law by carrying cannabis oil vape cartridges when she flew to Moscow to play basketball in Yekaterinburg in February.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city (of Yekaterinburg) for the mistake I made and the embarrassment I caused them,” Griner said, her voice cracking. “I also want to apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my wonderful husband at home.”
Under Russian law, Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. but judges have considerable discretion in sentencing.
If she is not released, attention will turn to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner exchange, which US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken offered to his Russian counterpart last week.
She said she had made an “honest mistake”, adding: “I hope your decision doesn’t end my life.”
Griner said Yekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural Mountains, has become her “second home.”
“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such an impression on me in the six and a half years I’ve been here,” she said. “I vividly remember walking out of the gym and all the little girls in the stands waiting for me, and that’s what kept me coming back here.”
Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist used strategies to bolster Griner’s contention that she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage because of hasty packing. They presented character witnesses from the Russian team she plays for in the WNBA offseason and written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed cannabis for her pain.
Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner had inadvertently brought the cartridges with her to Russia and was only using cannabis to treat pain from career injuries. She said she only used it in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.
She emphasized that Griner was hastily packing after a grueling flight and suffering from the effects of COVID-19. Blagovolina also noted that the analysis of the cannabis found on Griner was done with errors and in violation of legal procedures.
Blagovolina asked the court to acquit Griner, noting that she had no criminal record and praised her role in the “development of Russian basketball.”
Another defenseman, Alexander Boykau, also highlighted Griner’s role in helping her Ekaterinburg team win multiple championships, noting that her teammates loved and admired her.
He told the judge that the guilty verdict would undermine Russia’s efforts to develop national sports and make Moscow’s call to depoliticize sports sound shallow.
Boykov added that even after being detained, Griner won the sympathy of both guards and inmates, who supported her by shouting: “Britney, everything will be fine!” when she went on prison walks.
Prosecutor Mikalai Ulasenko insisted that Griner packaged the cannabis on purpose and asked the court to fine Briner 1 million rubles (about $16,700) in addition to the arrest.
If she is not released, attention will turn to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner exchange.
Before the trial began in July, the State Department declared her “wrongfully detained,” placing her case under the supervision of its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, effectively the government’s chief representative in hostage negotiations.
Then, last week, Blinken appealed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to accept a deal that would see Griner and Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia on espionage charges, freed.
The Lavrov-Blinken conversation marked the highest-level contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago. The direct appeal to Griner runs counter to US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.
People familiar with the offer say it involves swapping Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Victor Bout, who is serving a prison sentence in the US. It underscores the public pressure the White House faced to release Griner.
White House spokeswoman Karin Jean-Pierre said on Monday that Russia had made a “bad faith” response to the U.S. government’s offer, a counteroffer that U.S. officials did not consider serious. She refused to elaborate.
Russian officials have derided US statements on the case, saying they show disrespect for Russian law. They remained firm, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without releasing speculative information.”