On Thursday, WNBA star Brittney Griner was found guilty of drug charges in a Russian court. Shortly after being found guilty, she was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison.
Russian prosecutors had argued that Griner, who was convicted of sneaking marijuana vaping materials into the country, should serve 9 1/2 years in prison.
The American justice system is far from perfect, but this outrageous sentencing should put things into perspective for everyone, including LeBron James, about how unjust other justice systems around the world operate.
Americans have, since her arrest, treated her case with undue deference, almost certainly because of her celebrity status.
There are other Americans held in Russian jail cells who are mostly unknown to Americans. But because Griner is an American athlete and gay, she has been treated with celebrity adulation.
The verdict was expected to be announced uncharacteristically swiftly. It is not a surprise that she was found guilty. Judges have considerable latitude on sentencing.
The U.S. has been trying to negotiate her release, reportedly considering offering a notorious Russian arms dealer imprisoned here as a trade.
Here’s what Griner said prior to the delivery of the verdict in the Khimki city courthouse:
“I never meant to hurt anybody, 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.”
— Reuters (@Reuters) August 4, 2022
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Griner had already acknowledged having vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage in a guilty plea last month, but Russian judges nonetheless have wide discretion in meting out sentences. She faced up to 10 years, and prosecutors sought most of that.
Maria Blagovolina, a lawyer on Griner’s defense team, argued that Griner brought the cartridges to Russia by mistake and only used cannabis as medicine and only while in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.
Griner, who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, had flown to Russia to finish her season for UMMC Ekaterinburg when she was arrested. The team competes in the Russian Premier League and FIBA Europe’s EuroLeague. WNBA players can make far bigger salaries playing in Europe and Asia during the league’s off-season than they can earn in the United States, where interest in women’s basketball is limited.
Before the trial began last month, the State Department designated her as “wrongfully detained.” Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept an exchange in which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction, would be freed, reportedly for notorious arms trader Viktor Bout.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday Russia has made a “bad faith” counter-offer in response to the U.S. government’s offer.
During an earlier court session, Griner’s defense team made the argument that she had used medical cannabis in the past to help with pain from injuries.
Medical marijuana is illegal in Russia.