At the same time as U.S. and Russian diplomats are discussing a potential prisoner exchange involving Brittney Griner, the American basketball star’s attorneys are exhausting all available options to try to reduce her nine-year prison sentence.
Griner’s defense team on Monday filed an appeal against the verdict handed down earlier this month by a Russian court, attorney Maria Blagovolina confirmed via email to Yahoo Sports. Blagovolina did not respond to a question seeking an explanation of the grounds of the appeal.
Griner’s appeal is expected to take up to three months to be adjudicated, Blagovolina has said. Blagovolina told Yahoo Sports last week that through the end of her appeals process, Griner will remain at a prison in the village of Novoye Grishino, 50 miles north of central Moscow. Only after that can she be sent to a penal colony elsewhere in the country.
A Russian judge found Griner guilty of drug possession and drug smuggling with criminal intent on Aug. 4 even though prosecutors allege she brought less than a gram of cannabis oil into the country last February. The judge rejected Griner’s emotional plea for leniency for an “honest mistake” and sentenced her to just shy of the maximum 10 years that she was eligible to receive.
In a joint statement on the day of the verdict, Griner’s attorneys called her nine-year sentence “absolutely unreasonable” and said they would appeal. Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov argued that “the court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea.”
During the trial, Griner’s attorneys didn’t fight against the inevitability of a guilty verdict. Their strategy was to try in vain to make a case for a lenient sentence.
On July 7, Griner confessed to inadvertently violating Russian law, telling the judge she packed in a hurry and mistakenly brought the vape cartridges with her. Blagovolina and Boykov later summoned character witnesses and presented an American doctor’s letter saying that Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana to help her cope with chronic pain from past basketball injuries.
Given the chance to speak directly to the judge after closing arguments, Griner asked that she not “end my life” with a harsh ruling.
"I know that everybody keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said. “I want to say again that I had no intent of breaking Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime."
That the Russian court still handed down a harsh sentence came as no surprise. Experts had warned for weeks that Griner’s trial was essentially theater and that its only real purpose was to legitimize the Kremlin’s desire to hold her until it could extract concessions out of the U.S. in exchange for her safe return.
Griner’s appeal is likely to face the same challenges as her initial defense because of the political calculus involved. A guilty verdict and a long sentence give the Kremlin the most leverage in upcoming negotiations with the U.S. and increase the pressure on the Biden administration to make a deal to bring Griner home.
“Look, the Russians are good at this stuff unfortunately,” former State Department foreign services officer and Russian foreign policy expert David Salvo told Yahoo Sports earlier this month. “It's just a really unfortunate scenario for Brittney. You have a heavily politicized case with lots of attention all over American society and lots of pressure on the Biden Administration. The Russians are going to try to get every bit they can out of this.”
A high-ranking Russian diplomat told the Russian state news agency TASS over the weekend that a prisoner exchange with the U.S. “is being discussed through the channels defined by our presidents.” Alexander Darchiev, the director of the North American department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, confirmed that notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout is among the Russians whom the Kremlin is seeking in exchange for Griner and fellow jailed American Paul Whelan.
Salvo told Yahoo Sports that he’d be “very surprised” if the exchange turns out to be a 2-for-1. He said the “harsh reality” is that Russia can afford to drag out negotiations and let the pressure on the Biden administration continue to rise in hopes of prying more concessions from the U.S. than just the release of Bout.