Brittney Griner has been found guilty of smuggling illegal narcotics into Russia, the New York Times reports. The judge sentenced the WNBA star to nine years in prison and issued a fine of 1 million rubles, or about $16,300.
While the guilty verdict was expected, as the Russian legal system rarely acquits defendants, the trial garnered national attention throughout the weeks-long trial.
During the final stage of the trial Thursday, the Russian prosecutor argued that Griner knowingly put the vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage before flying to Russia in February, where Griner was set to play for the Yekaterinburg team during the WNBA offseason.
Because the act was deliberate, the prosecutor asked the judge to hand down a sentence of 9.5 years in prison on the drug possession charges; the charges usually carry a 10-year sentence, but Griner has already spent nearly six months behind bars since her Feb. 17 arrest.
Before the verdict, Griner addressed the judge, saying she “never meant to break any law,” and apologized for her actions; she previously pleaded guilty to the drug possession charges, with the subsequent trial to determine the penalty against her.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans, and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said (via the Associated Press). “I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”
Griner’s lawyer Maria Blagovolina argued during the closing hearing that Griner should face the most lenient sentence possible given her role in promoting Russian basketball and lack of a criminal record.
The verdict concludes a trial that heightened the tensions between the U.S. and Russia amid the Ukraine invasion; talks over a possible prisoner exchange for Griner have been conducted between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, the highest level of governmental contact between the U.S. and Russia since the invasion began.
The State Department offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, currently imprisoned in America, for Griner and another imprisoned American, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former security executive Paul Whelan, both of whom the U.S. government claims are “wrongly detained” in the country. However, according to the AP, Russia countered that offer with a “bad faith” response.
Speaking to the judge Thursday, Griner said she hoped the geopolitical noise regarding her situation didn’t impact the court’s decision. “I know everybody keeps talking about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics,’ but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said.