The trial against WNBA player Brittney Griner started Friday in a court near Moscow, where the basketball star faces up to 10 years in prison on drug smuggling charges, in a case that has underscored the frayed relations between the United States and Russia.
Griner, a Houston native and center for the Phoenix Mercury, has been detained since February, when Russian authorities allege she was found in a Moscow airport in possession of cannabis-derived vape cartridges.
She has made no public statements since her detention and it’s unclear what she makes of the accusations against her or what she says were the circumstances surrounding her arrest.
Griner, whose arrest came less than a week before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, plays for a Russian basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason.
The U.S. State Department said in May that Griner is being “wrongfully detained by the Russian government,” an official classification that means the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, working in coordination with the department, can be more aggressive in its efforts to secure her release.
Following a pretrial hearing on Monday, a State Department spokesperson said it “will continue to press for her release.”
But experts in Russian law say Griner’s best option to obtain her release would be through diplomatic channels rather than the legal system. Marijuana is illegal in Russia for recreational and medical purposes, and fewer than 1% of all criminal cases in the country end in acquittal, according to Reuters.
Prison time in a penal colony is all but guaranteed if Griner is convicted on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs, and she could be locked up between five and 10 years, said William E. Butler, the author of “Russian Law and Legal Institutions” and a professor at Penn State Dickinson Law.
Russia’s criminal code can allow a court to impose a less than the minimum sentence, Butler said, but lawyers must give a persuasive argument.
Many of the details surrounding Griner’s trial have been murky. Butler said she would likely face a bench trial, as opposed to a jury one, and he would expect a verdict to come on the same day the trial ends.
Butler said these types of trials might last no more than a day, but “since we know nothing of her side of the story, one cannot be sure.” Griner would have the chance to appeal if she is found guilty.
Thomas Firestone, a former Justice Department official who worked as a lawyer in Moscow, said he is aware of one recent case similar to Griner’s that took about two-and-a-half months to conclude. An acquittal in Griner’s case, he added, would be “very unlikely.”
Firestone believes the trial will be watched closely by officials at the Kremlin. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA championship winner with the Mercury, is no ordinary American detainee, and former diplomats have suggested President Vladimir Putin may view her as a potential bargaining chip for a high-profile Russian national detained in the United States.
Experts say among those Russia would want in a prison swap is Viktor Bout, an international arms dealer dubbed the Merchant of Death who was given a 25-year sentence in 2011 for conspiring to sell weapons to rebels in Colombia.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on “Meet the Press NOW” on Monday that Putin is withholding Griner as part of a “strategy of basically intimidation.”
But a Putin spokesman disputed the State Department’s position that Griner is a Russian hostage, telling NBC News she is no different from “hundreds and hundreds of Russian citizens that were sentenced for carrying hashish.”
Meanwhile, Griner’s supporters, including her wife and fellow WNBA players, continue to rally around her during basketball games and on social media with the hashtag #WeAreBG.
Wife Cherelle Griner, in an interview Wednesday with the Rev. Al Sharpton, said she has received letters from her spouse in which she said she is “holding on,” but believes she’s still “struggling. She’s there terrified. She’s there alone.”
Cherelle Griner said on Sharpton’s SiriusXM radio show, “Keepin’ It Real,” that she hasn’t spoken to her wife since Feb. 17. The couple was supposed to speak this month on the date of their fourth anniversary, but a logistical error with the American embassy reportedly failed to connect their call.
Cherelle Griner added that the trial against her wife is already stacked against her.
“Nothing about this is justice,” she said.