Brittney Griner: Closing arguments expected in WNBA star's drug-smuggling trial in Russia

Brittney Griner: Closing arguments expected in WNBA star’s drug-smuggling trial in Russia

The court hearing in the Khimki city courthouse comes six months after Griner, 31, was arrested at a Moscow airport and accused by Russian prosecutors of trying to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist, who also plays for a Russian team in the WNBA offseason, pleaded guilty to drug charges last month in what her lawyers say was an attempt to take responsibility and receive leniency if she is ultimately convicted and sentenced .
“Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and (Griner’s) personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence,” her legal team said last month.

The defense also has tried to undermine the prosecution’s case. On Tuesday, at the seventh hearing in her case, a defense expert tested that the examination of the substance contained in Griner’s vape cartridges did not comply with Russian law.

“The examination does not comply with the law in terms of the completeness of the study and does not comply with the norms of the Code of Criminal Procedure,” forensic chemist Dmitry Gladyshev tested during the roughly two-hour session.

Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin & Partners law firm and a member of Griner’s defense team, told CNN her team’s experts identified “a few defects” in the machines used to measure the substance.

At trial, Griner has tested she has a doctor’s prescription for medical cannabis and had no intention of bringing the drug into Russia. Following her detention in February, she was tested for drugs and was clean, her lawyers previously said.

The US State Department maintains Griner is wrongfully detained, and her supporters have called for her release and asked the US to take further steps to try to free her from the country, perhaps as part of a proposed prisoner swap.

“She’s still focused, and she’s still nervous. And she still knows that the end is near, and of course she heard the news so she’s hoping that sometime she could be coming home, and we hope, too,” Blagovolina said Tuesday. She added the verdict in the case will come “very soon,” potentially Thursday.

How the trial has gone

In court Tuesday, Griner sat inside the defendant’s cage in the courtroom. The charge d’affaires of the US embassy in Moscow, Elizabeth Rood, attended the hearing and afterward said the US would “continue to support Miss Griner through every step of this process and as long as it takes to bring her home to the United States safely.”

Griner’s attorneys have already laid out some arguments claiming the basketball player’s detention was not handled correctly after she was stopped February 17 by personnel at the Sheremetyevo International Airport.

Her detention, search and arrest were “improper,” Alexander Boykov, one of her lawyers, said last week, noting more details would be revealed during closing arguments.

After she was stopped in the airport, Griner was made to sign documents that she did not fully understand, she tested. At first, she said, she was using Google translate on her phone but was later moved to another room where her phone was taken and she was made to sign more documents.

No lawyer was present, Griner tested, and her rights were not explained to her. Those rights would include access to an attorney once she was detained and the right to know what she was suspected of. Under Russian law, she should have been informed of her rights within three hours of her arrest.

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In her testimony, Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them,” Blagovolina said after last week’s hearing.

“We continue to insist that, by indiscretion, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances allowed for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov, of Moscow Legal Center, has said.

The trial has played out amid the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the country’s saber-rattling with the US and Europe.

Last week, CNN reported that President Joe Biden’s administration proposed a prisoner swap with Russia, offering to release a convicted Russian arms trafficker, Viktor Bout, in exchange for Griner and another American detainee, Paul Whelan. Russian officials countered the US offer, multiple sources familiar with the discussions have said, but US officials did not accept the request as a legitimate counteroffer.

The Kremlin also warned Tuesday that US “megaphone diplomacy” will not help negotiations for a prisoner exchange involving Griner. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow believes these talks should be “discrete.”

Griner’s family, supporters and WNBA teammates have continued to express messages of solidarity and hope as they wait for the conclusion of the trial. Her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, is expected to play the Connecticut Sun on Thursday night at 7 pm ET.

Before trial proceedings last week, the WNBA players union tweeted“Dear BG … It’s early in Moscow. Our day is ending and yours is just beginning. Not a day, not an hour goes by that you’re not on our minds & in our hearts.”

CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Travis Caldwell, Dakin Andone, Kylie Atwood, Evan Perez, Jennifer Hansler, Natasha Bertrand, Frederik Pleitgen, Chris Liakos and Zahra Ullah contributed to this report.

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