Brittney Griner found guilty on drug charges in Russian court

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NBC News — Basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted on drug charges by a Moscow court Thursday, with a judge set to announce the sentence she will face.

Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 9 1/2 years after closing arguments in a lengthy trial that has underscored the two countries’ frayed relations since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Griner pleaded guilty last month to charges that carry a maximum sentence of 10 years. In a final plea for leniency, an emotional Griner apologized and repeated that she never intended to break any Russian laws but had made “an honest mistake.”

A judge said she had been found guilty of drug possession and smuggling.

After Thursday’s verdict, attention will turn to the potential for a prisoner swap between the United States and Russia. U.S. officials are not expecting rapid movement in the effort to get Griner released, but will keep pressing the issue, a U.S. official told NBC News.

Griner, 31, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February; Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.

Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, admitted the canisters were hers. She said she took them to Russia unintentionally.

One of her lawyers, Alexander Boikov, told reporters during the trial that Griner was in a hurry as she was packing and that the vape cartridges ended up in her luggage by accident.

The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn, while the Biden administration has been under growing pressure from her family and teammates to secure her release.

The U.S. government has proposed that Moscow release Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage, in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia responded in “bad faith” to the U.S. government’s offer with one of its own. “We don’t see it as a serious counteroffer,” she said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, last week — the highest-level diplomatic engagement between Washington and Moscow since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February — to urge the Kremlin to accept the U.S. offer. Blinken called it a “frank and direct conversation” but declined to characterize Lavrov’s response.

The Russians responded by urging the U.S. to refrain from speculation and pursue “quiet diplomacy” instead.

Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was freed from a Russian prison in April, had earlier said he believed the White House was not doing enough to help free Griner and Whelan.

In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as having been “wrongfully detained” and transferred oversight of her case to the its presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied Griner is being held as a hostage.

President Joe Biden spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, last month. He also sent a letter directly to Griner after she sent him a handwritten note pleading for help to get her released.

On Thursday, Griner was led into a cage inside the courtroom in handcuffs, wearing a gray-colored shirt. Before the proceedings began, she displayed a photo of her teammates from the Russian club she played for in the WNBA off-season.

The prosecutors asked for a 9 1/2-year jail term for Griner and a 1-million ruble ($16,590) fine, considering her guilt fully proven, but her lawyer Maria Blagovolina called it "nonsense."

Her defense team called into question some of the expert analysis used in the case and said Griner did not have proper interpreter access during her arrest. They also pointed out Griner’s many athletic accomplishments, including in Russia.

Her lawyers reiterated that Griner has only used cannabis medically, and has never used it in Russia. They asked for Griner to be acquitted or be given the most lenient sentence possible.

As Griner addressed the court after the closing arguments, her voice trembled as she apologized to her fans, family and teammates for any embarrassment or damage that she may have brought on them. She called the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she played, her second home.

"I never meant to hurt anybody," she said. "I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here."

In previous hearings, her defense team argued that, like many other international athletes, Griner, a 6-foot-9 native of Houston who plays for Russia’s Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company Ekaterinburg in the offseason, uses medicinal marijuana to help with injury pain.

Griner’s legal team has also tried to build her defense on her image as a role model, and positive contributions to global and Russian basketball.