The detained WNBA star Brittney Griner apologized and asked for leniency in an emotional speech to a Russian courtroom in her drug-smuggling trial Thursday ahead of an expected verdict.
Griner said she had no intention to break Russian law and that bringing a vape cartridge with trace amounts of drugs in it was a mistake.
“That’s why I pled guilty to my charges. I understand everything that’s been said against me, the charges that are against me and that is why I pled guilty but I had no intents to break any Russian laws,” she said.
A verdict is expected as soon as 10:45 am ET.
[Original story, published 9:09 a.m. ET]
Griner arrived at court in handcuffs Thursday and was escorted by Russian officers into the defendant’s cage. Once uncuffed, she spoke with her legal team and then held up a photo of the UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team, the Russian squad she played for during the WNBA offseason.
In closing arguments Thursday, a prosecutor asked for 9.5 years of jail time for Griner, according to defense lawyer Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm.
In response, Blagovolina argued that Griner never used marijuana in Russia and that she never had the intention of doing so. She had no need to bring the vape cartridges to Russia, the lawyer added.
All this confirms the complete absence of intent in her actions, Blagovolina argued. Even if Griner ever used medical marijuana, it was only at home back in Arizona, rare and only with a doctor’s prescription, she added. She couldn’t have known how strict the laws were in Russia, Blagovolina said.
Griner said in a brief remark during the hearing that she agrees with everything her defense lawyers said to the court.
Another of Griner’s attorneys, Alexander Boykov, argued Griner had no opportunity to properly examine the court documents. He said that the Russian constitution guarantees everyone the right to use their native language and the free choice of the language of communication.
Boykov cited an instance when a language interpreter provided to Griner flipped through a lengthy document offered by an investigator for translation and then told Griner, “Basically, it means that you are guilty.”
“She’s still focused, and she’s still nervous. And she still knows that the end is near, and of course she heard the news so she’s hoping that sometime she could be coming home, and we hope, too,” Blagovolina said Tuesday.
Charge d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Russia, Elizabeth Rood, arrived at the court Thursday ahead of the hearing. She has appeared in court throughout the trial and on Tuesday said the US would “continue to support Miss Griner through every step of this process and as long as it takes to bring her home to the United States safely.”
How the trial has gone
Griner’s attorneys have already laid out some arguments undermining the prosecution’s case and claiming the basketball player’s detention was not handled correctly after she was stopped February 17 by personnel at the Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Her detention, search and arrest were “improper,” Boykov said last week, noting more details would be revealed during closing arguments.
No lawyer was present, Griner tested, and her rights were not explained to her. Those rights would include access to an attorney once she was detained and the right to know what she was suspected of. Under Russian law, she should have been informed of her rights within three hours of her arrest.
On Tuesday, at the seventh hearing in her case, a defense expert tested that the examination of the substance contained in Griner’s vape cartridges did not comply with Russian law. Blagovolina also told CNN her team’s experts identified “a few defects” in the machines used to measure the substance.
At trial, Griner has tested she has a doctor’s prescription for medical cannabis and had no intention of bringing the drug into Russia. Following her detention in February, she was tested for drugs and was clean, her lawyers previously said.
In her testimony, Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them,” Blagovolina said after last week’s hearing.
“We continue to insist that, by indiscretion, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances allowed for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov, of Moscow Legal Center, has said.
The trial has played out amid the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the country’s saber-rattling with the US and Europe.
The Kremlin also warned Tuesday that US “megaphone diplomacy” will not help negotiations for a prisoner exchange involving Griner. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow believes these talks should be “discrete.”
Griner’s family, supporters and WNBA teammates have continued to express messages of solidarity and hope as they wait for the conclusion of the trial. Her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, is expected to play the Connecticut Sun on Thursday night at 7 pm ET.
CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Travis Caldwell, Dakin Andone, Kylie Atwood, Evan Perez, Jennifer Hansler, Natasha Bertrand, Frederik Pleitgen, Chris Liakos and Masha Angelova contributed to this report.