Brittney Griner’s guilty plea on Thursday in a Russian court on drug charges may have been part of a strategy to get a more lenient sentence, an expert on the Russian legal system told USA TODAY Sports.
Reuters reported from the courtroom that Griner entered a guilty plea and could face up to 10 years in prison. The Russians have accused Griner of large-scale drug transportation. Griner been in Russian custody since Feb. 17. She spoke to the court during her plea.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said in English, according to Reuters, which was then translated into Russian for the court.
Jamison Firestone, an attorney, Russian legal expert and one of the main proponents of the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 law that allows the U.S. government to sanction human rights violators, believes that admitting guilt could possibly allow the Russians to show Griner leniency.
“I am assuming that she had the cartridges with her,” Firestone told USA TODAY on Thursday. “I am also assuming that anyone with a brain could see that they were for her own personal use, and that this was not ‘large-scale transportation of drugs.’
“If she crossed the border with drugs, she has to serve time. To deny she had the stuff with her if she did, or to argue whether it was large-scale transportation of drugs or not, would have gotten her the maximum sentence. There is no nuance in Russian criminal law. She would be viewed as if she was spitting in the face of the system.”
Firestone added: “But admitting guilt to having the drugs, but also saying there was no intent, allows the powers that be to show leniency if they are so inclined.”
Firestone said the next possible step would be the Russians deciding to grant that leniency, or potentially using Griner as a bargaining chip in a possible future prisoner exchange with the United States.
“A political decision will now be made whether to be lenient or use her as a bargaining chip,” Firestone said. “I think she will almost certainly be sentenced to time in a prison camp, but they are either going to surprise us and be somewhat lenient with a short sentence (which she will then serve), or they will give her a long sentence and she will eventually be exchanged for someone.”
The WNBA Players Association released a statement on Thursday saying that Griner is wrongfully detained and it will continue fighting for her release.
“The WNBPA stands with Brittney Griner,” the statement read in part. “With a 99 percent conviction rate, Russia’s process is its own. You can’t navigate it or even understand it like our own legal system. What we do know is that the U.S. State Department determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason and will continue negotiating for her release regardless of the legal process. We’ll leave it at that.”