Just as the Biden administration is becoming more aggressive in prisoner trade negotiations with the Kremlin, WNBA star Brittney Griner seems to be taking a similar approach to her legal defense.
Hoping for a lenient sentence, Griner and her attorneys have shown a newfound willingness to risk making waves by challenging evidence that Russian prosecutors present.
In her testimony on July 27, Griner made a point of highlighting the alleged failure of Russian authorities to adhere to their country’s rules. Griner said that she was not read her rights after her arrest at a Moscow airport in February, that she did not have access to an attorney and that she was told to sign Russian-language documents without fully understanding what they were or the consequences of signing them.
The focus of Tuesday’s hearing was the state’s examination of the cannabis oil in the two vape cartridges that Griner allegedly carried in her luggage when she flew into Moscow on Feb. 17. An expert witness summoned by the defense called into question the state’s measurement of how much of the banned substance was actually in those cartridges, testifying that the analysis was flawed and did not meet Russian legal standards.
While Griner has previously confessed to accidentally bringing cartridges containing cannabis oil into Russia, the amount she had should theoretically impact the sentence she receives. Prosecutors allege that she had .702 grams of cannabis oil and that what she had is enough to exceed the “significant amount” threshold under Russia’s criminal code, which is punishable with a prison term of 5-10 years.
Yahoo Sports asked a pair of experts whether Griner’s increasingly vigorous defense will help or hurt during sentencing. The responses indicate what Griner is up against: she is a defendant in a show trial meant to lend a veneer of legitimacy to Russia’s efforts to hold her until a trade can be made.
Attorney and Russian legal expert Jamison Firestone said that “Russia routinely breaks its own laws” and that “usually a court won’t overturn anything just because the police, investigators, prosecutors or lab techs broke procedural law.”
“This is particularly true,” Firestone said, “in politically important trials.”
At the same time, former State Department foreign services officer David Salvo argued that Griner’s defense strategy won’t hurt her either — albeit not for an encouraging reason. Salvo suspects that high-ranking Russian officials have already long since instructed the judge to hand down a guilty verdict and a lengthy sentence to preserve Russia’s leverage in subsequent prisoner exchange negotiations with the U.S.
“Whatever is going to happen to her has already been decided at the highest levels,” said Salvo, the deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and an expert on Russian foreign policy. “I don’t think what her defense team is doing is going to make things any worse because I don’t think they can markedly change the landscape.”
Griner’s trial is scheduled to resume on Thursday with closing arguments, according to Reuters. Her attorney, Maria Blagovolina, previously told Yahoo Sports that a verdict and sentencing are expected to occur by mid-August.
Griner’s sentence will arrive at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War. Supporters of Griner have alleged that Russia took the two-time U.S. Olympian as a political pawn and have put immense pressure on the Biden administration to negotiate a deal to secure her freedom.
Last Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to urge him to accept the U.S.’s “substantial proposal” to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. Blinken has declined to share details of the offer, but he has not denied reports that President Biden has signed off on trading Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms trafficker currently serving a 25-year sentence in an Illinois federal prison.
While Russian officials have not shot down the possibility that a deal can eventually be reached, they have insisted they won’t entertain any offer until the conclusion of Griner’s trial. On Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov again criticized the U.S. for going public with its offer, telling reporters that “megaphone diplomacy and a public exchange of views won’t work here."
As Griner awaits a deal, she and her lawyers have tried to make a case for a lenient sentence. They’ve presented doctor’s notes, summoned character witnesses and introduced evidence that her arrest and the evidence collection were improper.
Unfortunately, most experts consider that an exercise in futility. In a case this politically charged, they suspect Russian officials have already scripted Griner’s fate
“They are going to give her a lot of time,” Firestone said. “Then they are going to trade her.”