For weeks, members of the Mercury braced for Thursday’s ruling in the trial involving their teammate Brittney Griner. And when a decision was reached in the Moscow court, hours after Griner delivered her closing remarks, the verdict leveled against the WNBA star was unsurprising to many.
Griner was found guilty of drug smuggling charges, and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony by a Russian court. The judge also issued a fine of 1 million rubles, which is roughly $16,300.
“It hits my heart heavy, but the brain side of me knows, it’s just the next step,” guard Diana Taurasi said last weekend, preparing for the result.
An estimated 99% of criminal cases in Russia end in conviction, with legal experts having noted at the beginning of the trial that Griner’s early July guilty plea could have lessened her eventual sentence. She faced up to 10 years, and the prosecution requested 9 ½ years.
Thursday’s ruling also comes amid hope of a prisoner swap involving the Mercury center, whom the United States government has for months classified as being wrongfully detained.
“While we knew it was never the legal process that was going to bring our friend home, today’s verdict is a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG,” the Mercury said in a statement. “We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful to and confident in the public servants working every day to return her to her family and us. We remain faithful the Administration will do what it takes to end her wrongful detention. We are inspired every day by BG’s strength and we are steadfastly committed to keeping her top-of-mind publicly until she is safely back on American soil. We will not allow her to be forgotten. We are BG.”
Last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that a “substantial [prisoner swap] proposal” to Moscow involving Griner and Paul Whelan, a former Marine who is serving a 16-year sentence after being convinced on spy charges (of which Whelan says he was framed), had been made. The Russian government publicly acknowledged that it had received an offer from the U.S., but that no deal had been reached.
Blinken and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, spoke last Friday for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. While Blinken told reporters he “urged” Lavrov to move forward with the U.S’s proposal, he said he was “not going to characterize” Lavrov’s response. (White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, however, told reporters Monday that Russia had a “bad faith” response to the government’s offer. Jean-Pierre did not elaborate.)
President Joe Biden, who called Griner’s sentencing “unacceptable,” said his administration will “continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible” following Thursday’s ruling.
Russian officials have long said that they were focused on their country’s legal system playing out before addressing an exchange. But even with the trial having wrapped, Tom Firestone, a Washington lawyer who formerly served as legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said that it doesn’t mean a swap is imminent.
Instead, Firestone recently told the Associated Press that Russia “may want to let this play out a little bit longer and try to extract more concessions.”
CNN has also reported that while arms deal Viktor Bout—who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization—was the initial prisoner offered by the Biden administration in a swap, Russian government officials have additionally requested a former colonel from the country’s domestic spy agency who was convicted of murder in Germany last year be included in the negotiation.
Throughout the trial, Griner and her lawyers made their case for leniency, arguing that she did not intend to break Russian law. While she acknowledged she had vape cartridges containing cannabis oil when she arrived in the country in mid-February, she contended that she had no criminal intent and the cartridges ended up in her luggage as she was hurriedly packing for her return from the United States. She added that she was prescribed cannabis as a treatment for chronic pain from injuries.
According to multiple outlets, Griner reacted to the sentence with little emotion, listening to it with a blank stare on her face as the verdict was translated. “It is difficult for her to talk,” one of Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, told The New York Times. “It is a difficult time for her.”
“The trial is a step in the process,” Mercury team president Vince Kozar said earlier this week, echoing what he has learned from experts about the Russian legal system. “And the verdict is a step in the process. But her being brought home is going to be, all of the people working on this, including the White House, making that happen. And that’s not just for her. That’s for Paul Whelan and that’s for Americans detained in countries all over the world.”
“I really try and look at the big picture and end goal here,” Mercury forward Brianna Turner says.
During the season, Griner has been top of mind for those within the organization, and around the league. In Phoenix, a giant “We are BG'' banner is displayed on one side of the team’s Footprint Center. Griner’s number is stickered onto the court, both there and in the W’s other 11 venues. Throughout Mercury games, videos featuring Griner still play, including one that reminds fans to sign a petition on Change.org. And every time Griner’s wife, Cherelle, attends a home contest she is shown on the jumbotron. “So she can feel the love from the fans,” Kozar says.
Recently, at the league’s All-Star weekend in Chicago, Griner was named an honorary All-Star starter, and players wore No. 42 jerseys throughout the exhibition’s second half.
“Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a joint statement. “The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”
While her teammates had prepared for Thursday’s ruling, the outpouring of her support when the verdict was handed down remained widespread, with players across the WNBA tweeting variations of “Free BG.” Speaking in the leadup to the ruling, Kozar recalled one recent game in which he spotted a young fan holding a sign that echoes the aforementioned sentiment. “Today was my 11th birthday, and the only thing that would make it better is if BG was here.”
“It’s heartbreaking to see her in that position,” Taurasi says. “But at this point we have to look at [the sentencing] as the next step to getting her home.”
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