Brittney Griner was found guilty during her trial for “large-scale transportation of drugs” in Russia on Aug. 4. The 31-year-old WNBA player was convicted of “deliberately bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia despite them being illegal,” per Reuters. The judge ruled that she had criminal intent, and sentenced her to nine years in prison. Brittney, who pleaded guilty to the charge on July 7, has already spent six months in Russian custody.
Brittney’s lawyers said she is “devastated” about the verdict in a statement to People. “She is very upset and she’s honestly quite shocked, so she needs to digest what happened today,” Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners, said.
Following the verdict, President Joe Biden issued a statement: “Today, American citizen Britney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Britney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Britney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
BREAKING: Pres. Biden on Brittney Griner's sentence in Russian drug trial: "Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates." https://t.co/8jMkbBBnaH pic.twitter.com/LwFZdLwzvh
— Good Morning America (@GMA) August 4, 2022
MORE: The judge found that Brittney Griner had criminal intent and said she is guilty of smuggling and storing illegal drugs. She was sentenced to nine years in prison. https://t.co/4j36yH1PSh
— ABC News (@ABC) August 4, 2022
The trial reached its final stage on Thursday, per The New York Times. Britney appeared in a Russian court for the start of closing arguments. During the comments, Britney spoke about the values her parents instilled in her and explained why she initially pled guilty. “I understand everything that has been said against me in the charges against me, but I had no intent to break Russian law,” she said. “I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made while rushing and in stress trying to recover post-Covid and just trying to get back to my team.”
There have been reports of a potential prisoner swap, with the US offering to exchange arms dealer Viktor Bout, 55, dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” for Brittney and former Marine Paul Whelan, per the Washington Post. Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted of espionage charges; he says he was framed. Russia officials said no deal has been made, but have hinted that there may be a willingness to cut a deal after the trial is complete.
Brittney was arrested in February, after she was found to have marijuana vape cartridges in her luggage, while traveling in Mosco, Russia, where she plays during the WNBA’s off-season. After she was arrested, she was granted access for a visit with an official from the United States State Department, via the U.S. Embassy.
The basketball star’s trial was originally scheduled to take place in May, but after an appearance in court at the beginning of that month, it was revealed that Brittney would have to wait until June for her trial to begin. Her lawyer had said that she didn’t have “any complaints about the detention conditions,” when she appeared in May.
Amid the wait for the trial to begin, those close to Brittney and others have called for her to be released, the basketball star’s wife Cherelle called on President Joe Biden to do all he could to get Brittney back in the States in a May interview with ESPN. “He has that power. I’m just like, ‘Why are we not using it? Like, urgently, use it.’ We’re expecting him to use his power to get it done,” she said. During another interview with Good Morning America, Cherelle also expressed the belief that Brittney was being detained due to the United States’ support of Ukraine amidst its war with Russia. “She’s a political pawn. So if they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it,” she said.
Brittney’s wife wasn’t the only one calling for the WNBA player’s release. Other stars from the entertainment and sports worlds also called for her release, including LeBron James and Amy Schumer. “We need to come together and help do whatever we possibly can to bring BG home quickly and safely!” LeBron tweeted.