American basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty Thursday to drug possession charges on the second day of her trial in a Russian court in a case that could see her sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
The abrupt guilty plea by the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist came amid a growing chorus of calls for Washington to do more to secure her freedom nearly five months after her arrest in February amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.
A senior Russian diplomat said earlier that no action could be taken by Moscow on Griner’s case until the trial was over, and her guilty plea could be an effort by her and her advisers to expedite the court proceedings.
Griner, 31, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport while returning to play basketball in Russia, and police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Speaking through an interpreter, Griner told the court she had no intention of committing a crime and had acted unintentionally because she had packed for Moscow in a hurry. The trial was then adjourned until July 14.
Griner emphasized “that she had committed this act through negligence, unintentionally,” her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, said outside the court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki after the guilty plea.
“We of course hope for the leniency of the court,” she said. “Considering all the circumstances of the case, taking into account the personality of our client, we believe that the admission of guilt should certainly be taken into account.”
Blagovolina added that other defense witnesses would be questioned at a later session.
Griner was escorted to the courtroom in handcuffs and clad in a bright red T-shirt with the name “Crenshaw” and sweat pants. She also held a photo of her wife, Cherelle.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Griner’s guilty plea “will have no impact on any of the negotiations” involving her case.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington would continue to work for the release of Griner, as well as other Americans held by Moscow, including former Marine Paul Whelan.
“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he tweeted, noting that U.S. Embassy officials attended the trail again Thursday.
Elizabeth Rood, the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, said after the hearing that she spoke to Griner in the courtroom and shared with her a letter from President Joe Biden that she read.
“She’s eating well, she’s able to read books and under the circumstances she’s doing well,” Rood said.
“I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the U.S. government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained as well as the commitment of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all U.S. citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia,” Rood said.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov bristled at the U.S. description of Griner as “wrongfully detained” and warned that “attempts by the American side to make noise in public … don’t help the practical settlement of issues.”
The White House said Biden called Cherelle Griner on Wednesday to assure her that he’s doing all he can to win her release as soon as possible. They spoke after Biden read a letter from Griner in which she said she feared she’d never return home.