The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist could face up to 10 years in prison, though her legal strategy appears to be to try to reduce that sentence.
KHIMKI, Russia — Brittney Griner was back in court Tuesday in a cannabis-possession trial amid U.S. diplomatic efforts to secure her release.
The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. As the trial progressed, the Biden administration faced mounting public pressure to secure her release.
Last week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken appealed to his Russian counterpart, 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 call marked the highest-level contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago, a direct contact that ran counter to US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.
People familiar with the offer say it involves trading Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Victor Booth. It underscores the public pressure the White House faced to release Griner.
White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday that Russia had made a “bad faith” response to the US government’s offer, a counter-offer that US officials do not consider serious. She refused to elaborate.
Griner admitted she had canisters of cannabis oil in her luggage when she was detained at a Moscow airport in February. But she insisted she had no criminal intent and the canisters ended up in her luggage because she was packing hastily. Griner played for the Russian women’s basketball team in the WNBA offseason.
To support her case, her lawyers presented testimony from doctors that she was prescribed cannabis as a pain reliever. Medical marijuana treatment is prohibited in Russia.
While judges have the ability to consider mitigating factors under Russian law, acquittals are rare and account for less than 1% of cases in Russian criminal prosecutions.
However, the conviction could potentially open the way for Griner’s exchange, as Russian officials have said that could only happen after the trial is over.
Washington lawyer Tom Firestone, who previously worked as a legal adviser at the US Embassy in Moscow, said Griner could be handed a harsh sentence as a way for the Russians to “maximize their negotiating leverage”. He told the Associated Press that Russia “might want to let this play out a little more and try to get more concessions.”
Russian officials have derided US statements on the case, saying they show disrespect for Russian law. They remained tight-lipped, calling on Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without divulging speculative information.”
Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this story.