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Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges

Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom in Khimki, just outside Moscow, for a hearing on Thursday.
Alexander Zemlianichenko
Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom in Khimki, just outside Moscow, for a hearing on Thursday.

Updated July 7, 2022 at 12:02 PM ET

Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges as her trial continued in Russian court on Thursday, admitting to bringing cannabis into the country but saying she had packed in a hurry and did not intend to break the law.

The Phoenix Mercury Center and Olympic medalist could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

It was Griner's second court appearance since her trial began in earnest last Friday. A judge had previously ordered her to be detained for the length of the trial, which her lawyer has said could last up to two months and will likely involve several hearings by the prosecution before the defense gets its turn. Another hearing is scheduled for next Thursday.

Griner was arrested on Feb. 17 — a week before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine — after authorities at Sheremetyevo International Airport allegedly found cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage. She was traveling there because she plays for a Russian team during the U.S. offseason, which many WNBA players do to supplement their incomes.

Prosecutors allege that prior to her trip, Griner purchased two cartridges containing 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil for personal use. Last week's hearing featured testimony from two customs agents who were working at the airport when Griner's bags were inspected.

Most of Thursday's proceedings were spent on testimony for the prosecution, by two witnesses who were present at the airport when Griner was detained. Griner watched while cramped inside a small cage in a corner of the hot courtroom, not saying much.

After the prosecution wrapped its case, Griner stood up and asked to make a statement. She entered her guilty plea and asked for more time to prepare further testimony.

"I would like to plead guilty on the charges against me," she said. "But I had no intention on breaking any Russian law. I was in a rush packing and the cartridges accidentally ended up in my bags."

When asked why she pled guilty today, Griner's lawyers said it was her first chance to address the charges against her, adding that she recognized she was a role model to many and thought it important to own up to her mistakes — something they hope the judge will take into account while ruling on her case. Her lawyers will explain her actions in more detail and present her defense next week.

The Biden administration — which in May officially declared Griner to be wrongfully detained — believes that the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered her arrest in order to use her as leverage, though the Kremlin insists the case isn't politically motivated.

Thursday's hearing comes as the Biden administration faces growing public pressure to secure Griner's release, especially after Griner herself pleaded for help in a handwritten letter delivered to the White House on the 4th of July.

The White House announced Wednesday that the president had spoken to Griner's wife, Cherelle (after facing criticism for not doing so sooner), and read her a draft of a letter he planned to send her that same day. It reiterated that freeing Griner and other American detainees is a top priority.

Following Thursday's proceedings, U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood told reporters that she had delivered Biden's letter to Griner. She was again able to speak with Griner in the courtroom.

"She said that she is eating well, she is able to read books and under the circumstances she is doing well," Rood said.

There has been chatter in Washington and Moscow about a possible prisoner swap involving Griner and a Russian national imprisoned in the U.S. Citing confirmation from an official source, Russian state agency Tass previously reported that discussions had centered on the notorious convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, also known as the "Merchant of Death."

On Thursday, however, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov suggested that it is difficult to exchange prisoners with the U.S., in comments reported by Reuters. Referring to the letter that Biden intended to send Griner, he said that "hype" around the case does not help, and that "this kind of correspondence does not help."

Russia has said there will not be a potential prisoner swap until after a verdict has been reached.

Maynes reported from Russia. Treisman reported from Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.