Does Brittney Griner’s guilty plea mean conviction or release?

Screenshot from Russian television.

As her trial on drug smuggling charges continued on July 7, Olympic gold medalist and WNBA all-star Brittney Griner shocked the world with a surprise guilty plea. Griner has been in what the U.S. State Department calls “wrongful detention” since February 17.

Griner’s Russian lawyers, Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina told media that the guilty plea was entered in a plea for leniency. The sentence for drug smuggling is long – 10 years in prison.  

Boykov told media that Griner was tested for drugs at the time of her arrest in an airport outside Moscow and that she did not show any traces of drugs. “She was clean, and she was tested,” Boykov said.

The guilty plea adds some complexity to the all-star’s case. In an audio provided to CNN from the court, Griner, sounding exhausted, said that she had “packed in a hurry” and had not intended to bring any drugs into the country. 

Griner, who has played in Russia in the off-season since 2014, has led her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, to five championships. She is acutely aware of Russia’s stringent drug laws. PGN previously reported that foreign nationals have been falsely accused of crimes before in a bid to work out deals for release of Russian prisoners. According to Forbes, it is thought that Griner, a high-profile prisoner and international superstar, is being held as a political ploy to earn the release of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout and send him back to Russia.

PGN asked the U.S. State Department a series of questions on July 13 about Griner’s case. Asking if there was a comment on Griner’s guilty plea and if the State Department had advised her to plead guilty, a State Department spokesperson told PGN, “as we have stated before, the Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner.” The spokesperson added that Griner is being detained “under intolerable circumstances.”

Asked if her plea change had altered her status of wrongful detention, the spokesperson said it had not and that “we have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas.”

The spokesperson added that “at the President’s direction, the U.S. government continues to work aggressively, pursuing every avenue, to bring her home safely to her family, friends, and loved ones as soon as possible.”

Last week President Biden and Vice President Harris spoke with Griner’s wife Cherelle about Brittney Griner’s case.

The State Department also said that Griner was getting “consular assistance” and that such assistance may include “attempting to ensure that the detained/arrested U.S. citizens receive a fair and transparent legal process with access to legal counsel; visiting detained/arrested U.S. nationals in prison to ensure that they are receiving humane treatment, including medical treatment if needed; and with the individual’s permission, facilitating communications with their families or others as they wish.”

They also said that “consular officers provide a list of local lawyers, but cannot provide legal advice or effect the release of arrested U.S. citizens,” and added that “we cannot represent U.S. citizens in foreign courts.”

When asked about the rumored involvement of former U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson working on her release, the spokesperson said, “we are in contact with the Bill Richardson Center and value their ideas and advocacy. We are in close contact, and the Richardson Center is a partner in helping U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained abroad.”

The State Department referenced a comment from spokesperson Jake Sullivan on July 12 in which Sullivan told media in response to a query from a reporter that said, “former Governor Bill Richardson is planning to travel to Russia for talks aimed at finding a deal that would free Brittney Griner. Have you had talks with Richardson about the trip?”

Sullivan said, “We have had communication from the National Security Council to former Governor Richardson. I won’t comment on his travel or what he intends to do. What I will say is that President Biden is laser-focused on a government-to-government solution to this issue.

As he indicated to Brittney Griner in the letter that he wrote to her, we are working directly with the Russian government, through appropriate channels, to try to bring a speedy resolution not just to her case but to Paul Whelan’s case as well. And we will continue to work until those two unjustly detained Americans and all unjustly detained Americans and hostages are home safely.”

To PGN, the spokesperson stressed that, “Secretary Blinken has said, working to bring U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained home is something he is personally focused on, and he has no higher priority as Secretary of State.”

They added, “We will continue that work to secure Brittney’s release, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage around the world.”

In addition, PGN was told, “The U.S. government continues to work aggressively, pursuing every avenue, to make that happen. We care deeply about this case and Ms. Griner’s welfare, as we do for all U.S. citizen prisoners overseas.”

The spokesperson said that the “U.S. government is closely monitoring developments in this case and plans to attend future proceedings. The practice of wrongful detention represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad. We will continue to press for her release.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.