Brittney Griner appeals nine-year Russian prison sentence: What it means

On Monday, Brittney Griner filed an appeal to her lengthy Russian prison sentence.

What good would that tactic do in a case not decided on the merits? The goal mirrors the strategy Griner's team has employed throughout the case: speed up the timeline for her return.

Russian law dictates that appeals must be filed within 10 days of any verdict. Griner's attorneys used all of that time to file the appeal following her nine-year sentence to a Russian penal colony on drug charges on Aug. 4. The Phoenix Mercury star and two-time Olympic gold medalist has been detained in Russia for bringing vape cartridges with cannabis into the country since Feb. 17.

The appeal did not come as a surprise. Her lawyers – Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov – indicated they would file one on Aug. 4, the day of her conviction and sentencing.

The grounds of the appeal, however, remain unclear. But the appeal, for a case that is more political than judicial at this point, experts say, won't free her, and carries no guarantee of a reduced sentence.

Why did Brittney Griner file an appeal?

The prosecution asked for a sentence of nine years on a 10-year maximum. Griner pleaded guilty "without intent," saying she accidentally packed the cartridges – containing 0.7 grams of oil, prosecutors said – in her luggage.

Supporters at home and Griner's lawyers believe the nine-year sentence, coupled with Griner's acknowledgement and contriteness, is excessive.

Brittney Griner looks through bars of a cage in the Russian courtroom as she listens to the verdict in her case on Aug. 4.
Brittney Griner looks through bars of a cage in the Russian courtroom as she listens to the verdict in her case on Aug. 4.

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“They’re basically saying the sentence was too extreme as opposed to wanting to relitigate (the entire case),” said William Pomeranz, director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute.

An acquittal likely won't happen, and there is the chance for a reduced sentence, Pomeranz said.

“But the Russian legal system doesn’t like acquittals," he told USA TODAY Sports, "and it doesn’t like judges overruling decisions from other courts.”

No substantial changes

Russian legal expert Jamison Firestone told USA TODAY that Griner's lawyers will likely "challenge irregularities and violations in the search of her belongings and the testing of the substances found and the information provided to her."

Griner said during her trial that her rights were never fully explained to her. Additionally, the New York Times reported Boykov saying the court had ignored "serious procedural violations during detention, extraction of physical evidence, arrest and investigation."

There is a chance the legal team chooses to challenge other things, Firestone said "but in the end the court isn’t going to make any substantial change to its sentence."

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How appeals in Russia differ vs. United States

In the United States, in addition to federal laws, each state has its own appeals system.

In Russia, University of Illinois professor Peter Maggs said, the system is simpler with one criminal procedural code that applies throughout the entire country. Another distinction is that Russian court allows for the reconsideration of facts presented during the previous trial.

“Do the facts justify an acquittal or conviction?” said Maggs, an expert in Russian civil code. “Do the facts justify the sentence or is it too harsh or too mild?”

Southern Methodist law professor Jeff Kahn, also an expert in Russian law, said that while the precise reasons for an appeal are still unclear "the next-level court has very broad authority to review Ms. Griner's conviction."

Brittney Griner is an 8-time WNBA All-Star and helped the Phoenix Mercury win the WNBA championship in 2014.
Brittney Griner is an 8-time WNBA All-Star and helped the Phoenix Mercury win the WNBA championship in 2014.

Sentence reduction likely, experts say

If Griner's lawyers are arguing the severity of the sentencing, the appeal will stand a decent chance of reducing the punishment, Maggs said. It won't be substantial, however.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if she got, instead of nine years, seven-and-a-half years on the appeal,” he said.

No dates for a Griner appeal have been reported in Russian state media. The court has two or three months, depending on procedural issues, to decide the appeal, Maggs said. Prior to her trial, Griner's pre-trial detention was extended until Dec. 20.

“One would hope there would be some sort of swap before that," Maggs said. "So the appeal may just become pending and then become irrelevant.”

Will appeal affect prisoner swap negotiations?

Over the weekend, Russian government officials matched their American counterparts by saying negotiations to free Griner via a prisoner swap are ongoing. The U.S. State Department publicly revealed a "substantial offer" for Griner and another American named Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence in a penal colony. Both are considered "wrongfully detained" by the U.S.

The appeal should not impact the prisoner swap, Firestone said. However, Russia has previously said Griner is expected to exhaust "all legal options" before any deal could be made. An appeal is the final option Griner has within the system.

Appeal will delay transfer to penal colony

Griner will remain near Moscow in the same pre-trial detention facility she's been held in for months. Her sentencing calls for her transfer to a penal colony, a journey that could take more than a month as she is transported to a remote part of the country.

But as long as the appeal is active, that process is delayed, Firestone said.

Russia also has a stake in letting the appeal play out from a public relations standpoint, Maggs said. The charade of a fair trial is important and moving deliberately offers that impression.

Contributing: Mike Freeman; Associated Press

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Brittney Griner appeals prison sentence in Russia for drug charge