Mercy is worth a shot in Griner’s Russia drug case

Adrienne Lawrence
Liberal Opinion

Adrienne Lawrence

Legal commentator
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Ten months ago–and one week before Russia’s Ukraine invasion–WNBA star Brittney Griner was detained at a Moscow airport and arrested for drug possession. The charges–stemming from the discovery of vape canisters in her luggage by Russian authorities–could result in a 10-year prison sentence. There is pressure on the U.S. to secure her release and Griner herself sent a letter to President Joe Biden pleading for help. Now she’s entered in a guilty plea, but in a penal system where guilty verdicts are almost always a foregone conclusion, a prisoner swap might be her best best. Straight Arrow News contributor Adrienne Lawrence has a number of theories about why Griner has changed her legal strategy:

After some six months of detainment and two days of trial, WNBA star Brittney Griner suddenly pleaded guilty to bringing hashish oil into Russia. This revelation arguably isn’t indicative of a sudden clearing of conscience, as much as it’s likely a strategic play amidst a geopolitical political conflict. Brittney Griner told a Russian judge on Thursday that she inadvertently packed vape cartridges in her luggage when she entered a Moscow airport back in February. The two-time Olympic gold medalist came to play for for a local team. Falling at the mercy of the court, she maintained that there was no intent to violate the nation’s laws. Yet she has been detained on drug possession and smuggling charges since February 17, facing up to ten years in prison if convicted.

Griner’s arrest came a week before Russia invaded Ukraine and her plea change comes a day after she received a letter from President Joe Biden, and on the heels of a Russia official suggesting that Moscow could be open to trade. Let’s talk about three very real aspects of this situation, which may explain her change in plea.

First, Griner likely realizes that she’s not going to get justice in Russia. The U.S. Department of State determined in its annual human rights reports that the Russian judicial system is neither independent nor impartial, but is susceptible to corruption, or is incapable of rendering just verdicts. Russia has a 99.75% conviction rate on charges, harkening back to the  soviet-era.

All said, a Griner conviction is predetermined and all-but-certain. And let’s be real… the country is averse to her and everything she represents. She’s a proud Black woman lesbian held in a nation with an anti-LGBTQ bent and a black population of less than one tenth of a percent.

To simply bend the knee — whether guilty or not — is in Griner’s best interest. Hopefully, the court will be merciful and not give her the full 10 years for the 0.7 grams of cannabis oil allegedly found in her luggage. Unfortunately, another American named Mark Fogal was allegedly found with 17 grams of cannabis oil for medical use. He pleaded guilty but the Russian court gave him 14 years in a penal colony. Still, when facing a decade in prison, mercy is worth a shot. 

After some six months of detainment and two days of trial, WNBA star Brittney Griner suddenly pleaded guilty to bringing hashish oil into Russia. This revelation arguably isn’t indicative of a sudden clearing of conscience, as much as it’s likely a strategic play amidst a geopolitical political conflict. Brittney Griner told a Russian judge on Thursday that she inadvertently packed vape cartridges in her luggage when she entered a Moscow airport back in February. The two-time Olympic gold medalist came to play for for a local team. Falling at the mercy of the court, she maintained that there was no intent to violate the nation’s laws. Yet she has been detained on drug possession and smuggling charges since February 17, facing up to ten years in prison if convicted. Griner’s arrest came a week before Russia invaded Ukraine and her plea change comes a day after she received a letter from President Joe Biden, and on the heels of a Russia official suggesting that Moscow could be open to trade.  Let’s talk about three very real aspects of this situation, which may explain her change in plea.

First, Griner likely realizes that she’s not going to get justice in Russia. The US Department of State determined in its annual human rights reports that the Russian judicial system is neither independent nor impartial, but is susceptible to corruption, or is incapable of rendering just verdicts. Russia has a 99.75% conviction rate on charges, harkening back to the  soviet-era. All said, Griner conviction is predetermined and all-but certain. And let’s be real… the country is averse to her and everything she represents—She’s a proud Black woman lesbian held in a nation with an anti-LGBTQ bent and a black population of less than one tenth of a percent. To simply bend the knee—whether guilty or not, is in Griner’s best interest. Hopefully, the court will be merciful and not give her the full 10 years for the 0.7 grams of cannabis oil allegedly found in her luggage. Unfortunately, another American named Mark Fogal was allegedly found with 17 grams of cannabis oil for medical use. He pleaded guilty but the Russian court gave him 14 years in a penal colony. Still, when facing a decade in prison, mercy is worth a shot. 

 Second, Griner may have changed her plea because she’s entangled in a geopolitical conflict of epic proportions. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States has hit Russia with significant sanctions, compounding the already strained relationship between the two nations. Russia may make an example of Griner, simply because it can. It also Russia may exploit Griner as a pawn to get something it wants. And that brings me to my third point.

 Third, there’s some suggestions that the Russians may be willing to deal for Griner, but a guilty plea would be a requisite step. We know this because of implicit remarks made by a Russian deputy foreign minister named Sergei A. Ryabkov. When asked about an exchange, he said, “It is clear that we have not completed the necessary judicial procedures. Until this happens, there are no nominal, formal or procedural grounds for any further steps.” He went on to suggest that Moscow may negotiate, saying Griner would be helped by “a serious reading by the American side of the signals that they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized channels.” That “serious reading” is likely pointing to the exchange of  Viktor Bout, a 55-year-old Russian arms dealer nicknamed as “the merchant of death.” Bout is serving a 25-year prison sentence here in the United States. Whether the U.S. will deal for Griner is unknown but it may not happen anytime soon, as her guilty plea does not end her trial. She returns to court on July 14. In the meantime, while it’s unknown whether Griner actually had cannabis on her, what seems readily apparent is that Griner is doing what she needs to get home, including entering a guilty plea.


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