As Brittney Griner Trial Starts, Acquittal Looks Like a 'Fantasy'

Some experts think Russian proceedings will be for show only, with a near-certain conviction
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 1, 2022 7:01 AM CDT
Brittney Griner's 'Murky' Trial Begins in Russia
WNBA star Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing in Khimki, Russia, on Friday.   (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The trial of WNBA star Brittney Griner starts Friday in Russia, and the odds don't look good that she'll be set free at its conclusion. The 31-year-old WNBA star, arrested in February at a Moscow airport and accused of having cannabis oil in her bags, has been held in a detention center near the capital in advance of the trial, and that detention could be just the start: She's facing up to 10 years behind bars if convicted of the narcotics smuggling charges against her. NBC News has pics of the Phoenix Mercury player, sporting a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, arriving early Friday for the first day of her trial, details of which the news outlet calls "murky."

  • Trial length: That's the first part that remains unclear. Penn State Dickinson Law professor William Butler notes trials like Griner's have been as short as one day, but Thomas Firestone, a former DOJ attorney, says he recently saw a similar case drag out for more than two months.
  • A trial for show: Experts tell ESPN that justice isn't typically the name of the game in such a proceeding, where a judge will probably lead things and prosecutors may simply sit there "like potted plants." And with 99% of Russian criminal cases ending in a conviction, things look grim for Griner. Acquittal is "a fantasy for average Russians," a Russian law expert tells the sports network. "It's a double fantasy for someone in this sort of political case." Firestone agrees, telling NBC an acquittal is "very unlikely."
  • Political games? CNN notes that advocates for Griner suspect her high-profile status as a well-known American athlete have made her a "political pawn" amid Russia's war in Ukraine, an assertion that Kremlin mouthpiece Dmitry Peskov denies. "Her arrest cannot be politically motivated," Peskov told reporters Friday, stressing her drug charges.
  • Possible prisoner swap: Still, there have been whispers that Griner could be freed as part of a prisoner exchange that would involve the US releasing Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (nickname: "Merchant of Death"), who's serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to Colombian rebels.

  • If convicted: Butler says if Griner is found guilty, she'll almost certainly end up in a Russian penal colony. Griner will have the chance to appeal if a conviction is handed down.
  • Reaction from family: In a SiriusXM interview Wednesday with the Rev. Al Sharpton, Cherelle Griner says her wife "is struggling," per People. "She's there terrified, she's there alone." But Cherelle Griner says her spouse recently wrote her a letter in which she noted: "I'm holding on and I won't break until I come home."
Much more here on what her trial could entail. (Read more Brittney Griner stories.)

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