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Shortly before 3 p.m. on Wednesday, a cadre of Russian police officers escorted Brittney Griner into a cramped courtroom outside Moscow and led her to her customary spot inside a metal defendant’s cage.
Griner, clad in a long-sleeved black Phoenix Mercury T-shirt, held out her hands so that one of her guards could remove her shackles. Then, as cameras flashed, the WNBA star shook hands with her attorneys through the bars of the cage, flashed a thumbs-up sign and held up a sheet of paper with personal photos of her wife Cherelle and other supporters back home.
Griner was back in court for the most important day so far in a high-stakes drug trial that could result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years. The judge and prosecutor interrogated her about why she broke Russian law last February by bringing vape cartridges containing hash oil into the country.
Expanding on the guilty plea that she gave nearly three weeks ago, Griner sought leniency from the court, explaining that she “never planned on bringing medical marijuana” to Russia. Speaking through a translator, Griner admitted she knew that cannabis was a banned substance in Russia but reiterated that she accidentally took the vape cartridges with her in her haste to pack for her Feb. 17 transatlantic flight to Moscow.
“With them being accidentally in my bag, I take responsibility,” Griner told the court, “but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle anything into Russia.”
Griner began her testimony by describing her confusion when Russian customs officials took her into custody after finding the cartridges in her bag. She testified that she was not read her rights, 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.
"I can only assume that they were about the search and the cartridges," Griner said.
At a previous hearing this month, Griner’s attorneys presented the court with an American doctor’s letter saying that Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana. Griner echoed that in her testimony Wednesday, saying the cannabis oil helped her cope with chronic pain from lingering knee, ankle and back injuries that she sustained during her basketball career.
“She explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them,” her attorney Maria Blagovolina said after the hearing.
Griner’s testimony mirrored the strategy her legal team has employed throughout her slow-moving trial. From Day 1, Griner’s attorneys have never fought against the inevitability of a guilty verdict. They’ve instead focused on summoning character witnesses and introducing mitigating evidence that they hope will result in a lighter sentence and grease the path for a potential prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia.
How much any of Griner’s testimony will impact her sentence is debatable. Experts have told Yahoo Sports they consider Griner to be a political pawn and describe her trial as nothing more than “theater.”
Danielle Gilbert, a Dartmouth University foreign policy fellow, contends that the trial is “only about Russia’s efforts to legitimize holding Griner” while Russian officials seek to trade her in a prisoner exchange or for some other concession from the United States.
Yuval Weber, an expert on Russian military and political strategy, says that he has “zero doubt the judge will not be making an independent decision” on the length of Griner’s sentence. The way Weber sees it, Russian government officials will dictate Griner’s punishment — and they lose the upper hand in negotiations with the U.S. if they show lenience.
“The longer her sentence, the more basic leverage Russia has,” said Weber, a distinguished fellow at Marine Corps University's Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare.
Griner’s imprisonment comes at a time of renewed hostility and distrust between the U.S. and Russia. Relations between the two nations are at their lowest point since the Cold War as a result of Russia’s assault on Ukraine and the U.S. joining Western allies in imposing economic sanctions.
The State Department has declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” in Russia since May and has described negotiating a deal to secure her freedom as a top priority. Russian officials have bristled at that classification and have demanded that the U.S. respect the laws of their country.
On July 4, Griner sent President Biden a letter urging him to “please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees.”
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote.