Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to a drug charge Thursday in a Russian court, a "decision informed by discussion with her legal defense team in Russia," Griner's team said in a statement.
"I'd like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn't want to break the law," Griner said in court. "I'd like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare."
In a statement, Griner's legal team stated that "considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
While the guilty plea does mean Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison, could be sentenced to further jail time, it's a smart strategy, said William Pomeranz, an expert on Russian law. According to Pomeranz, 99 percent of Russian court cases end in conviction. A guilty plea could result in a lighter sentence and, most crucially, it opens the door for a deal for Griner's release because Russian officials have said they won't do anything until the trial is over.
"If she wants to return home and she believes they're working on a prisoner swap, the faster that this proceeding ends, the faster she can get home," Pomeranz, the acting director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told Yahoo Sports. The institute specializes in researching all aspects of Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a tweet Thursday that members of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow attended the hearing and "delivered to her a letter from President Biden."
"We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones," Blinken stated in the tweet.
Her next court hearing is scheduled for July 14, when it's expected that more evidence will be presented.
"In the U.S., you can plead guilty and that's the end, you proceed to sentencing after that," explained Tom Firestone, an attorney who spent 14 years as the resident legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. "In Russia, because the system's more formalized, they've got to read the additional evidence into the record, the court has to satisfy itself that the plea is consistent with the evidence."
Griner's legal team expects the trial to conclude at the beginning of August.
Bringing Griner home 'a priority' for the U.S.
Griner has been behind bars since Feb. 17, when she flew into a Moscow airport and Russian customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She has been under investigation for the large-scale transportation of drugs.
In court Thursday, Griner told the court she accidentally packed the vape cartridges in her luggage, ESPN's T.J. Quinn reported.
The United States government has deemed Griner "wrongfully detained" by the Russian government, a significant development that allows the Biden administration to work more aggressively to negotiate a deal to secure her freedom. A day after Griner sent a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday that Griner's release "is a priority for this president."
The negotiations of Griner's release could potentially involve Whelan. A former Marine who was sentenced in a Moscow court to 16 years on spying charges, Whelan has been detained in Russia since December 2018.
Russian state media has reported that the Kremlin is seeking the release of Viktor Bout, a notorious arms trafficker known as the "Merchant of Death." Bout flooded conflicts in Africa and the Middle East with weapons, U.S. authorities say. He was arrested in a 2008 sting operation in Thailand, extradited to the United States and eventually sentenced to 25 years for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Bout’s arms trafficking history makes the allegations against Griner appear minimal by comparison, which could complicate a 1-for-1 exchange.
“This is the kind of situation that we want to avoid,” former top Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas told Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg in May, “because the Russians will continue to seize Americans as trade bait if we agree to such swaps.”