WNBA star Brittney Griner was found guilty Thursday of drug smuggling charges by a Russian court and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.
The verdict and sentencing came hours after her month-long trial concluded. Griner also received a fine of 1 million rubles (approximately $16,700).
Prosecutors sought a nine-and-a-half year prison sentence for the Phoenix Mercury center in their closing arguments earlier Thursday, close to the 10-year maximum sentence. They also asked the court to hand down a fine of 1 million rubles.
Griner faced seemingly impossible odds — more than 99 percent of Russian court cases result in a conviction. Still, Griner’s defense team had asked the court to acquit her in their closing arguments, citing the breach of her rights during the investigation and legal process.
Her lawyers also cited the fact that she has no previous criminal record and pointed to her role in “the development of Russian basketball.” Griner has played for Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason since 2015.
“We know that in Russia the laws regarding drugs are very strict,” Alexander Boikov, a member of Griner’s legal team, said, “but Russia also cares about its prestige in sports. She had many offers, but she for some reason chose cold Ekaterinburg, knowing how warmly she would be received there.”
Boikov told the judge that a conviction could undermine Russia’s development of national sports and make the so-called “depoliticization” of sports seem superficial.
Her legal team also asked for leniency in case of a guilty verdict. The lawyers argued that Griner is loved and admired by more than just her teammates, stating that after her arrest Griner won the support and sympathy of guards and prison inmates, who told her, “Everything will be OK!” when she went on walks in jail.
Griner herself also pleaded for leniency Thursday. In addressing the judge, Griner said that she “never meant to break any law” in Russia, and she testified that the vape cartridges containing cannabis oil found in her luggage were an honest mistake.
“I know everybody keeps talking about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics,’ but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said.
She also apologized for embarrassing her teammates at UMMC Ekaterinburg, as well as her family, her wife and the WNBA. Those teammates, as well as teammates in the WNBA, took to social media Wednesday to ask the court for leniency for Griner, to no avail.
With the guilty verdict, though, diplomatic efforts to free Griner can ramp up.
Since July, the U.S. State Department has considered Griner to be “wrongfully detained” and has been attempting to negotiate for her release. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with Russian official Sergey Lavrov about a deal in which Griner and Paul Whelan would be exchanged for a Russian prisoner.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia had made a “bad faith” response to the offer that American officials don’t consider to be serious. Repeatedly, Russia has urged “quiet diplomacy” in the handling of the prisoner swap.