American basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court on Thursday, her lawyers said, meaning she could face up to 10 years in prison as her family and friends pushed harder for the US government to do more for her.
Griner, 31, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said they found vape cans containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner’s attorney, Alexander Boikov, told reporters outside the courtroom after Thursday’s hearing that the basketball star admitted the vape cans were hers but said she inadvertently brought them to Russia.
“She was in a hurry when she was packing, and it was just by accident that it ended up in her luggage,” Boikov said.
He said Griner is a “responsible person” in response to a question about why she decided to plead guilty.
“Given her personality, that she is a role model for a lot of people, for a lot of young people – she just thinks she should be responsible for her actions,” her other lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told reporters.
In a statement, her lawyers added that because of the “insignificant” amount of the substance found and because of Griner’s “positive contributions to global and Russian sports, the defense hopes the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and that there will be no severe punishment.”
Griner’s next hearing is scheduled for next Thursday.
Her latest court appearance comes after President Joe Biden wanted to reassure Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, that he was working to get her released as soon as possible. Griner wrote an emotional letter to the president this week, begging him to take her home.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted after the hearing that U.S. embassy officials attending the trial were able to speak with Griner and deliver a letter from Biden. “We will not yield until Brittney, Paul Whelan and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he said.
Spokesperson Adrienne Watson of the National Security Council agreed with that sentiment.
In a statement, she said: “As we have previously stated, we believe that the Russian Federation is wrongly detaining Brittney Griner under unacceptable conditions. At the direction of the president, the US government continues to work aggressively, using all avenues to get her home safely to her family, friends and loved ones as quickly as possible. We will continue that work to secure the release of Brittney, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other US citizens who are wrongfully held or held hostage in Russia and around the world.”
Whelan, a former US Marine, is serving a 16-year prison sentence for espionage. In a tweet after the hearing, Whelan’s twin brother, David, said he hopes “Griner’s admission of guilt will hasten the end of the injustice she is experiencing. Russia will not work to send her home until there is a conviction and sentence.”
Boikov, Griner’s lawyer, said the basketball star “appreciated” Biden’s letter.
Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Moscow, said after the hearing she could speak to Griner in court and Griner said she ate well. “She can read books and given the circumstances she is doing well,” Rood said in a statement.
Griner’s arrest, which took place days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, has exposed shaky relations between Washington and Moscow.
The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn, while the Biden administration has said she was “unjustly detained”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied that Griner was held as a hostage.
Griner, a 6-foot-9 Houston native, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and center for the Phoenix Mercury who played for a Russia national basketball team during the WNBA offseason. Her trial started last week.
She was led into the courtroom on Thursday, handcuffed, wearing glasses and a red T-shirt and trousers. Griner was later joined in court by three representatives of the US Embassy and its lawyers, with no TV cameras and only a few journalists allowed in.
Experts in Russian criminal justice say Griner faces at least five years in prison given the charges, but her decision to plead guilty may have been made to mitigate the maximum sentence of ten years.
Her attorneys could also argue that she earns less than the mandatory five years, said William E. Butler, the author of “Russian Law and Legal Institutions” and a professor at Penn State Dickinson Law.
“Condemnation here is crucial now,” Butler said, adding that “the question will be whether there are reasons to give her less than five.”
In a statement released to NBC News later on Thursday, Griner’s lawyers said they expect the trial to end in early August and hope for a lenient sentence.
“Given the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sports, the defense hopes the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating circumstance and that there will be no serious punishment,” the statement said.
Since her trial began, her family, friends and colleagues have increasingly called on the US to do more to bring her home.
Her team held a rally in support of her in Phoenix on Wednesday, while Rev. Al Sharpton urged Biden and Blinken on Tuesday to have him and a group of faith leaders meet with Griner in Russia.
The White House said Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called Cherelle Griner on Wednesday to assure her that the president is working on Griner’s release. He also read to her a draft of the letter he sent Griner, according to the White House read from the appeal.
It came after Griner said in the handwritten letter to Biden this week that she was terrified she could stay in Russian prison forever, begging him to do everything he can to bring her home.
In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as “wrongly held” and handed oversight of her case to the State Department presidential envoy for hostage-taking. US officials have said they are working behind the scenes to free her.
So far, Washington has not officially commented on a possible prisoner swap, despite speculation in Russian state media in May that Griner could be exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison term in US NBC News. cannot confirm those reports.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that “publicity and hype” in the media and online surrounding Americans detained in Russia is hampering Moscow-US interaction over prisoner exchanges. according to the state news agency Tass.
Prior to Griner’s admission of guilt, Deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexey Zaitsev said on Wednesday that she had been arrested for “a serious crime, corroborated by indisputable evidence”. But he said she was free to appeal and ask for a pardon. About a possible prisoner exchange, Zaitsev said the court would have to reach a ruling first, which he said would take at least a month.
“Brittney is an example of being brave,” her lawyers said in Thursday’s statement. “She decided to take full responsibility for her actions because she knows she is a role model for many people.”