WNBA star Brittney Griner’s trial in Russia on drug-related charges is expected to come to a close Thursday, with a verdict and sentence expected at any time. Here’s a quick look at how we got to this point.
Feb. 17: Griner, 31, is arrested while going through customs at Sheremetyevo Airport outside of Moscow. She is there to play for the Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she has played during WNBA offseasons since 2014. Customs officials say they discovered vape cartridges containing hashish oil. Russia has harsh drug laws with no exceptions for cannabis under any circumstances. There is no public announcement of her arrest.
Feb. 24: Russian military forces, on the orders of Vladimir Putin, begin an invasion of Ukraine, triggering a series of harsh economic sanctions from the United States and other western nations.
March 5: The Russian Federal Customs Service, as reported by The New York Times, announces it has Griner in custody on drug charges.
April 27: Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who has been held in Russia since August 2019, is unexpectedly released from Russian custody in exchange for Russian national Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the United States for smuggling drugs. The exchange is the first hopeful sign for Griner’s family that a diplomatic channel remains open between the two countries despite the war in Ukraine.
May 3: The U.S. Department of State declares Griner a wrongful detainee. No explanation is given as to why, but it means the United States will seek to negotiate her release rather than wait for the Russian case against her to come to a conclusion. Up to this point, Griner’s supporters have kept a low profile in the event she might be released before facing trial. After the announcement, they actively press the White House to bring her home. Sources say Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (and former governor, cabinet member and congressman), is working with his organization to secure Griner’s release.
May 13: Russian state media publishes a story that Griner might be traded for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States.
Appearing in a Russian court, Brittney Griner holds up a picture of WNBA players wearing her jersey during the All-Star Game. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images
Early June: The United States secretly offers to trade Bout for Griner and another American considered to be wrongfully detained, Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian custody on espionage charges since December 2018.
July 1: Griner’s trial begins in Khimki, a Moscow suburb, on charges that she tried to smuggle drugs into Russia. She faces 10 years in prison.
July 7: Griner pleads guilty but says she accidentally brought hashish oil into Russia and did not intend to break the law. Under Russian law, the trial will continue until the entire prosecutor’s case is read into the record. Witnesses also are called, making the rest of the trial a de facto pre-sentencing hearing.
July 19: The White House announces that President Biden is signing an executive order to hold anyone involved in the wrongful detainment of an American citizen accountable. It is meant to create a deterrence for foreign governments.
July 27: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announces the United States made a “significant offer” for Griner’s release in June. CNN reports that the offer included trading Bout for Griner and Whelan.
July 28: Russian officials respond by saying that any deals should be conducted without fanfare, and only after the completion of Griner’s trial.
Aug. 4: The last scheduled day of Griner’s trial. Both sides are expected to give closing arguments, Griner is to be given the final word, and a verdict and sentence are expected soon after.
What has Griner’s defense been?
U.S. officials and most experts have said her trial is theater, a way for Russia to maintain the veneer of legitimacy before a trade can be negotiated. Griner’s legal team knew she would be convicted and chose to have her plead guilty while saying she never intended to break the law. She also has said she was denied her rights as a defendant under Russian law when she was arrested. The strategy has been to seek leniency from the judge when she issues a sentence.
Will that work?
As far as the actual sentence, sources told ESPN that Griner is “prepared for the worst,” which would be 10 years. But Griner’s family and supporters have known all along that the trial is merely prelude to the only deliberations that matter: negotiations between the Russian and American governments. Even if she is sentenced to 10 years, the sentence is seen as a bargaining chit. Legal observers have told ESPN that if Russia does hit her with a heavy sentence, it will only reinforce the argument that her trial was never legitimate.
What happens after the sentence?
In the legal arena, both sides are able to appeal. (That’s right, the prosecution is allowed to appeal.) But for all purposes, the emphasis will shift to the diplomatic world. Officials expect that Russia might be more inclined to hasten negotiations once Griner has been sentenced. It wouldn’t be a shock if she were released in a week, but experience shows that talks can drag on for years.