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Russian prosecutors asked a judge during closing arguments on Thursday to sentence Brittney Griner to 9 ½ years in prison, just shy of the maximum 10 years that she is eligible to receive.
Both a verdict and potential sentence in the WNBA star’s drug-smuggling trial are expected Thursday, her attorney told reporters.
Closing arguments ended with Griner herself having the final word. Standing in the defendant's cage at the back of the tiny courtroom, Griner took responsibility for her "mistake" and apologized to her family, her teammates and her Russian club for "the embarrassment I brought on them."
"I never meant to hurt anybody," Griner said. "I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here.
"I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom," Griner continued. "I want to say again that I had no intent of breaking Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime."
For Griner, a guilty verdict has been a near certainty since even before the WNBA star confessed to packing in too great a hurry and accidentally taking vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Not only do Russian courts rarely acquit defendants under any circumstances, the Kremlin also has incentive to preserve its leverage in prisoner swap negotiations with the U.S.
Griner allegedly flew into Moscow on Feb. 17 carrying .702 grams of cannabis oil. That’s less than the weight of a pen cap or a stick of gum, yet prosecutors allege it’s enough to meet the “significant amount” threshold under article 229 of Russia’s criminal code, which is punishable with a prison term of 5 to 10 years.
For months, Griner and her supporters have pleaded with the Biden administration to broker a deal with the Kremlin to secure her release.
Thursday, Griner is expected to learn how long she could remain in Russian prison if those negotiations fizzle.
Yuval Weber, an expert in Russian military and political strategy, told Yahoo Sports that he expects Griner to receive the maximum possible sentence or close to it. The way Weber sees it, Russian government officials will dictate the length of Griner’s punishment based on what will allow them to extract the most out of the U.S. in negotiations for a prisoner swap or some other concession.
“The longer her sentence, the more basic leverage Russia has,” said Weber, a distinguished fellow at Marine Corps University's Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare.
William Partlett, an associate professor at Melbourne Law School and an authority on Russian politics, told Yahoo Sports that the court doesn’t need to send Griner to prison for 10 years for the Kremlin to negotiate a favorable trade. A five-year sentence, according to Partlett, would allow Russia to portray itself as “lenient” and “forgiving” to the rest of the world while still maintaining the upper hand in negotiations with the U.S.
“The political calculus, which the Kremlin knows, is that Biden cannot let her sit in a Russian prison for that long,” Partlett said.
The one thing most experts do agree on is that the judge presiding over Griner’s case won’t be making an independent decision on her sentence. High-ranking Kremlin officials, they argue, will have the final say.
Describing Griner’s trial “entirely theater,” Dartmouth University foreign policy fellow Danielle Gilbert told Yahoo Sports “we shouldn’t trust it like we might trust a trial in the United States or other places around the world.” Gilbert said the “real purpose” of the trial is to lend a veneer of legitimacy to Russia’s efforts to hold Griner for as long as necessary while making demands for her release.
“I’m 100 percent convinced that this is all about foreign policy leverage,” Gilbert said.
At the same time as Griner’s trial has unfolded inside a cramped courtroom outside Moscow, the question of her fate has also been discussed at the highest levels of U.S-Russian diplomacy. Last Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to urge him to accept the U.S.’s “substantial proposal” to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another American whom the government considers wrongfully detained.
Blinken has declined to share details of the offer, but he has not denied reports that President Biden has signed off on trading a notorious Russian arms trafficker with high-level government and military intelligence connections. Viktor Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in an Illinois federal prison for conspiring to kill Americans and sell weapons to Colombian terrorists.
While Russian officials have not shot down the possibility that a deal can eventually be reached, they have insisted they won’t entertain any offer until the conclusion of Griner’s trial.
William Pomeranz, an expert on Russian law and politics, predicted that the Kremlin won’t be in any hurry to accept the Biden administration’s 2-for-1 offer for Bout. Whereas Biden is under increasing domestic pressure to free Griner, Vladimir Putin doesn’t face the same level of urgency to bring Bout home.
“The U.S. pretty much laid its cards on the table, and now it’s the Russians who are in the driver’s seat,” said Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute. “They can now dictate whether this prisoner swap happens and how fast this moves.”
On July 7, Griner confessed to inadvertently violating Russian law, telling the judge she packed in a hurry and mistakenly brought the vape cartridges with her. Griner’s attorneys subsequently summoned character witnesses and introduced mitigating evidence to corroborate the WNBA star’s account.
The team captain and team director from Griner’s Russian basketball club testified on her behalf and described her as an exemplary citizen on and off the court. Griner’s lawyers also presented the court with an American doctor’s letter saying that Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana to help her cope with chronic pain from past basketball injuries.
Tom Firestone, the former resident legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told Yahoo Sports that Griner’s legal team did "the right things under the circumstances” but admitted that it’s “hard to say” whether it will actually help reduce the WNBA star’s sentence. After all, recent marijuana cases involving Americans in Russia have yielded a wide variety of outcomes.
In 2019, New York college student Audrey Lorber spent less than two months in prison after she allegedly entered Russia carrying 19 grams of marijuana. A Russian court found Lorber guilty of attempting to import marijuana, but she was released with time served and exempted from paying a fine.
Last month, a Pennsylvania school teacher received a far harsher punishment. Marc Fogel was sentenced to 14 years in Russian prison after being caught with medical marijuana that he says he used to treat a back injury.
“The Marc Fogel case is the most similar to Brittney Griner’s,” Firestone said. “He had a doctor’s prescription, he expressed remorse and he still received a 14-year sentence. That doesn’t augur well for Brittney.”
Gilbert, the Dartmouth foreign policy fellow, once assumed a Russian court would stick Griner with a similarly exorbitant sentence. Then Gilbert began to reconsider after a couple of puzzling moments during Griner’s trial that didn’t fit the max-punishment narrative.
First, prosecutors revealed that Griner had less than a gram of hash oil in her luggage at the time of her arrest. Then, Griner’s defense team was allowed to call Russian witnesses to speak on her behalf.
“That, in some ways, is inconsistent with a show trial where they’re going to smack her with the maximum possible sentence,” Gilbert said. “It allowed me to imagine a scenario where they might go another route.”
To Gilbert, what that means isn’t that Griner has received a fair trial. It’s that Russia could be playing “3D chess.”
“It might also be part of a strategy to make it look like this trial is legitimate,” Gilbert said. “If they want to give her a lighter sentence, it would still be disproportionate to what she did and it might be their way of trying to pretend to the rest of the world that this isn’t a hostage taking. They want the rest of the world to believe their legal system is fair. A lighter sentence might be part of reputational management.”