The WNBA star can appeal, but a prisoner swap now appears to be her best shot at freedom
A Moscow court sentenced WNBA star Brittney Griner to 9½-years in prison Thursday (August 4). Griner pleaded guilty last month, hoping for leniency in sentencing on charges that carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.
“I understand everything that’s being said against me, the charges that are against me, and that is why I pled guilty,” Griner told the judge through an interpreter. “I had no intent to break any Russian laws,” she added.
The US Olympian was distraught as she apologized to the court and insisted she made “an honest mistake” while packing in haste. ESPN reports that Griner “reacted to the sentence with little emotion, listening to the verdict with a blank stare on her face.”
Griner also apologized to her teammates, fans and the entire city of Ekaterinburg, where she was traveling to play for the summer.
“I never meant to hurt anybody. I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population,” she said. “I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
How we got here
Officials at Moscow’s Sheremtyevo airport reportedly found cannabis oil cartridges in Griner’s luggage back on February 17. She was entering the country to play for a Russian pro league, which she has participated in since 2014 during the WNBA offseason.
Griner’s trial has made political waves thanks to the tension between Russia and the US after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, exactly a week after Griner’s arrest.
Griner acknowledged the politics at play in her case, saying: “I know that everybody keeps talking about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics,’ but I hope that is far from this courtroom.”
Judge Anna Sotnikova only took a few hours to deliberate the verdict after hearing the evidence and Griner’s final plea for mercy. Griner was also sentenced to pay 1 million rubles ($16,590) as a fine for the violation.
President Biden called the sentence “unacceptable,” but his next steps for securing Griner’s release are still unclear.
Griner has the right to appeal, but experts say a prisoner trade is now the most likely outcome. Russian officials have said that Russian law forbids the country from considering a deal until after sentencing.
Reactions to the harsh sentence
“Today’s sentencing of Griner underscores the need for domestic cannabis reform,” said Director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Federal Affairs Maritza Perez via email after the sentencing.
“The US is responsible for exporting the drug war across the globe. It still arrests, incarcerates, and deports people for low-level cannabis arrests and convictions. This makes it incredibly challenging to protect US citizens abroad. We cannot stand on a moral or legal high ground because we don’t have it. The US must end marijuana prohibition and remedy the harms of mass cannabis criminalization.”
Maritza Perez, Drug Policy Alliance
Fellow pro athletes like Boston Celtic Grant Williams showed support for Griner via Twitter. And the Marijuana Policy Project said it ”unequivocally condemn(s) this imprisonment of an American athletic hero and the incarceration of anyone for consuming cannabis.”