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Brittney Griner’s best strategy may be guilty plea, legal expert says

(Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

WNBA star Brittney Griner’s trial is set begin Friday in a Russian court, and an international law expert says it might be best for her to plead guilty.

More than 99 percent of Russian court cases result in a conviction.

“It’s a fantasy for average Russians. It’s a double fantasy for someone in this sort of political case,” William Pomeranz, a Russian law expert and acting director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington, told ESPN. “It’s a foregone conclusion and the trial is to uphold the state and confirm the power of the state.”

Griner has been detained in Russia since February. She was taken into custody in a Moscow airport for alleged possession of hashish oil.

The added political factors in her case – the United States deems Griner to be “wrongfully detained” and is working toward her release – and the fact that she will not receive a trial by jury tip the odds even further in favor of a conviction.

The trial, according to legal experts, should be seen as a negotiation tactic by Russia, which is aiming to push the Biden administration into a prisoner trade in exchange for Griner’s freedom.

“The trial — and the threat of a long sentence — gives the Russians more negotiating leverage,” said Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Experts also say that any deal to release Griner likely would require an admission of guilt from the WNBA star. While a guilty plea could create difficulties for the U.S. State Department and the White House, experts told ESPN that the guilty plea could make life more bearable for Griner during her detention — and increase the likelihood of the two sides striking a deal for her release.

“Traditionally, the best defense is to admit your guilt and hope you get a lesser sentence,” Pomeranz added. “There’s not a lot of examples of people raising strong defenses and getting acquitted.”

But her status in the United States could make it harder to negotiate for her release.

“The problem is Brittney, politically, is worth so much more in terms of the trading of prisoners than Trevor Reed because of her profile. So the ask is going to be much bigger, and I think the ask that they’ve been telegraphing in the Russian news is for Viktor Bout,” Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Ph.D. student at Penn who is studying African American experiences in the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Russia, told the New York Times.

Cherelle Griner said in a radio interview Wednesday with the Rev. Al Sharpton said that her wife Brittney has described her state of mind in letters.

“She’s telling me she’s OK,” Cherelle Griner said of her wife’s letters. “She’s like, ‘I’m OK, babe. I’m hardened. I’m not me right now. When I come home, it’s going to take me a minute to get back to myself, but I’m holding on. I won’t break until I come home. I won’t let them break me. I know they are trying to, but I’m going to do my best to just hold on until I can get home.’”

Even as the trial starts Friday, the U.S. State Department is still actively working for Griner’s release.

“The United States government is actively engaged in trying to resolve this case and get Brittney home,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, said Tuesday. “It has the fullest attention of the president and every senior member of his national security and diplomatic team. And we are actively working to find a resolution to this case and will continue to do so without rest until we get Brittney safely home.”