Why Brittney Griner Pleaded Guilty

The WNBA star’s guilty plea is likely part of a strategy to get through the Russian court proceedings as quickly and comfortably as possible.

Why Brittney Griner Pleaded Guilty
Photo:AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko (Getty Images)

Brittney Griner, who has been wrongfully detained in Russia for 140 days, pleaded guilty to drug charges on Thursday, according to Reuters. However, she denied that she intentionally broke the law. Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted, though Griner’s lawyer Alexander Boikov told reporters he hoped for the most lenient sentencing possible.

“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said during her second hearing, while a translator repeated her words in Russian for the court. “I’d like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare.”

Though shocking and disappointing at first glance, Griner’s guilty plea was predicted, if not expected by a plethora of experts. William Pomeranz, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington and an expert on Russian law, recently told ESPN that admitting guilt is traditionally the best defense in hopes of getting a lesser sentence, adding that there aren’t many significant examples of detainees who pleaded not guilty and were acquitted. The defense can object throughout the trial, Pomeranz said, but based on other detainee cases, it “rarely does and is rarely successful.”

Griner’s criminal trial began in July in a courtroom just outside of Moscow. Though Putin and Russian government officials have repeatedly said she is not a political prisoner, the U.S. officially recognized Griner as a wrongfully detained hostage in May. She was first arrested at a Russian airport in February for transporting trace amounts of cannabis oil in vape cartridges and is currently being tried on criminal drug smuggling charges. Russian prosecutors told the court last week that Griner knowingly transported a “significant amount” of cannabis oil, although the actual amount, as far as we know, is 0.702 grams or 0.02 ounces.

Experts also told ESPN that Russia will likely require Griner to plead guilty in order to come to the negotiating table with American officials. If anything, experts said a “not guilty” plea might lead to Russian authorities treating Griner even worse in detention. If 99 percent of Russian criminal cases end in a conviction, it seems the best legal strategy is to get Griner through the trial as swiftly as possible, minimizing complications along the way. Russians can use a shocking sentence—like the threat of 10 years in a Russian prison—to force the U.S.’s hand; complying with the Russian process then, however corrupt or unjust, takes some wind out of the Russians’ negotiating sails. After all, every day Griner has to return to court for another hearing means another day spent in a small, steel cage for a five-hour round trip drive.

“[Acquittal is] a fantasy for average Russians. It’s a double fantasy for someone in this sort of political case,” Pomeranz told ESPN’s T.J. Quinn.

As Defector reported over a month ago, Griner’s trial is a practice in “hostage diplomacy,” in which a country “detains a foreign citizen without warning, in order to extract concessions or political gain from another government.” The most powerful tool in the shed? Due process, or “the promise of a country’s sovereign legal system as a kind of trojan horse.”

“These cases are not actually about legalities,” Jonathan Franks, a crisis management consultant, told Defector at the time, calling the images of Griner shackled a “dinner theater” with a “puppeteer.” “Wrongful detentions are not resolved with judicial outcomes. Period.”

Calls for Griner’s release have escalated over the last month, as her family, fans, and a coalition of 1,200 Black women have made direct appeals to the Biden administration for her swift release. As a Black queer woman, Griner faces danger in Russia, where homophobia is not only politicized but state-sanctioned.

While Griner is certainly the most famous American currently wrongfully detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, a Canadian-born American citizen and former U.S. Marine, has also been detained in the country for four years after he was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage. Though Whelan’s case has received far less fanfare, experts have speculated that the U.S. might consider swapping Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” for both Griner and Whelan. Shira Scheindlin, the former judge who presided over the Bout trial told Slate that Bout has served nearly half of his 25-year sentence in federal prison, which she thinks is enough…if it means returning two American hostages to their families. But the exchange would be wrapped up in what Defector called a “labyrinthine” system of fragile diplomatic relations and escalating tensions between Russia and the U.S, and it’s important to note that Griner’s and Bout’s “crimes” are wildly uneven.

Griner’s next court hearing is scheduled for July 14. Though Biden recently called Griner’s wife Cherelle, he has yet to meet with her in person. There’s no predicting for certain what will happen to the WNBA player next but, so far at least, the steps have played out in line with the Russian playbook.

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