Brittney Griner has been sentenced to nine years in prison for bringing a marijuana monkey into the country in February.
The WNBA star was found guilty of drug smuggling on Thursday by a judge who rejected her claim that she brought in the drugs by accident. Prosecutors had asked that she be jailed for nine and a half years, six months less than the maximum of ten. years in prison.
As she left court, Griner, 31, told reporters, “I love my family.”
Her lawyers say they have ten days to appeal the verdict and conviction, and the typical sentence for such a crime is six years.
President Biden immediately denounced the verdict, claiming she had been “unjustly detained” — despite her plea of guilty. She said it was an “honest mistake” and that the drugs must have ended up in her purse “accidentally”.
In a statement immediately after the sentencing, Biden said: “Russia is wrongly holding Brittney. It is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates.”
Brittney Griner in court in Khimki, near Moscow, Thursday. 31-year-old American athlete has been sentenced to nine years in prison
Griner was held in a cell while her legal team sat at a table around her. She had to rely on an interpreter to pass on what the judge said
Griner is led out of the courtroom in Khimki with a book, a bottle of water and photos of her teammates that she previously presented to the judge
Griner will be led out of court on Thursday. Her lawyers have not yet indicated whether they will appeal the sentence – or if that is even a possibility
He said he would continue to work “tirelessly” to follow “every avenue possible” to bring her and Paul Whelan – another American imprisoned in Russia – home.
Griner, 31, was arrested at the Moscow airport in February and has been incarcerated ever since, despite unsuccessful attempts by the White House to negotiate her release.
On Thursday, she sat in the defendant’s cage in the courtroom throughout the proceedings, relying on an interpreter to whisper to her everything the judge had said.
John Kirby, the director of the US National Security Council for Strategic Communications, echoed Biden’s comments during an appearance on MSNBC.
“This sentence, this trial only confirms what we have been saying all along: Brittney has been wrongfully detained and she must be released immediately by the Russian authorities so that she can be home with her wife, her teammates, and her friends and family.” and the President will remain 100% committed to achieving that result,” he said.
Before the verdict was handed down, she begged for leniency and asked the court to take into account her good character.
A judge accepted her plea – found her guilty of drug possession and smuggling.
They ruled that she committed the crimes on purpose – which she has denied.
She said she didn’t want to be seen as a political pawn and that it was a simple, “honest mistake” to bring the cannabis pen into the country.
Brittney Griner holds up a team photo showing her playing with UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team she spent the off-season with to bolster her WNBA earnings
President Biden immediately denounced the verdict, claiming that Russia had “wrongly” detained her
‘Russia became my second home. I vividly remember coming out of the gym and all the little girls coming out and waiting for me. That kept me coming back here.
“I want to apologize to my team-mates, my club and the city for my mistake and the shame I brought.
“I also want to apologize to my parents, my siblings, Phoenix Mercury, the wonderful women of the WNBA and my wonderful husband back home.
“It was never my intention to hurt anyone, it was never my intention to endanger the Russian people, it was never my intention to break any laws.
‘I made an honest mistake and I hope your statement doesn’t end my life. I know everyone keeps talking about political pawn and politics… but I hope it’s far from this courtroom.
“It was not my intention to break Russian law. I did not conspire or intend to commit this crime.
‘I hope you can take into account all the documents, the character lists that have been sent in on my behalf.
‘This is my second home. All I wanted to do was win championships and make them proud,” she said. The State Department was in talks to secure Griner’s release as part of a deal that would also bring imprisoned American Paul Whelan home.
The deal has been on the table for weeks, but Russia has yet to agree.
US officials would not confirm reports of the release of Viktor Boult, a Russian criminal known as the ‘merchant of death’.
Griner with wife Cherelle, who has been begging for help from the White House for months
Griner was arrested at Moscow airport in February when customs officials found a cannabis pen in her luggage. She’s been stuck ever since
Part of the proposed trade with Griner was that Paul Whelan would also be released. He has been in Russian prison since 2018 on charges of espionage (left). Mark Fogel, a teacher who was detained last year on suspicion of drugs, remains incarcerated and not part of the swap
During closing arguments on Thursday, her lawyers pleaded for leniency.
“In sprinting there’s Usain Bolt, in Formula 1 it’s Michael Schumacher, in women’s basketball there’s Brittney Griner,” her lawyer Maria Blagovolina said.
There was speculation that Griner would be released as part of a prisoner swap in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in the US in 2010.
Blagovolina, a partner at law firm Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners, said if the court deems it necessary to punish her, Griner should be treated leniently.
Griner’s family say they are frustrated with the White House’s response to the situation.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia has responded “in bad faith” to the US government’s offer, a counter-offer that US officials do not consider serious.
She declined to elaborate.
Griner admitted that vape cans of cannabis oil were in her luggage when she was arrested at an airport in Moscow.
But she insisted she had no criminal intent and that the jerry cans ended up in her luggage because she was packing in a hurry.
“I still don’t understand how they ended up in my bag,” she said.
Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana in the United States to relieve pain from chronic injuries, a treatment method common among elite athletes because it has fewer side effects than some pain relievers.
She played for a Russian women’s basketball team in the WNBA off-season.
As part of the deal, the White House proposed swapping Whelan and Griner, but not Mark Fogel – a teacher who was imprisoned in Russia in 2021 on suspicion of drug smuggling.
His family has begged the Biden government for help. Many have called for Griner’s release because marijuana is legal in the US.