Guilty plea might actually help Brittney Griner get out of Russia faster

tattooed basketball player sits and looks serious
American basketball star Brittney Griner has been trapped in Russia for months and faces 10 years in prison. Now, following her guilty plea, Northeastern faculty discuss what the future might hold for Griner—and when she might make it home. AP Photo/Rick Scuteri, File

Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in Russian court Thursday, the Associated Press reports. 

The American professional basketball player, who has been in detention since February after hashish cartridges were found in her luggage at a Russian airport, faces up to 10 years in prison. Griner told the court Thursday that she was guilty of large-scale transportation of drugs but did not intend to break the law. She will next appear in court on July 14, the Associated Press reports.

While it might seem like the plea was a loss for Griner’s case, Northeastern experts say this was likely a strategic move that could get her home sooner.

“Her pleading guilty may actually hasten the ability to negotiate a way for her out of Russia,” says Alexandra Meise, an associate teaching professor in the School of Law at Northeastern.

“A trial would have taken some length of time, and potentially not an insubstantial length of time,” she says. “The fact that she has pleaded guilty makes it very likely that sentencing will come in short order.” 

The U.S. and Russia will likely negotiate from there, Meise says.

Alexander Meise, associate teaching professor in the legal skills in social context program. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Developments in Griner’s case have been sporadic since her February arrest, which came just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In May, U.S. officials reclassified her as “wrongfully detained,” and last week, after Griner wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden that she was “terrified I might be here forever,” Biden spoke to Griner’s wife and wrote in a statement that “he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible,” CNN reports. 

Griner’s plea may have been made to avoid a conviction, says Ekaterina Botchkovar, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern. 

“The Russian criminal justice system is known to have a 99 percent conviction rate,” she says. “In fact, latest figures show the acquittals constitute about .25 percent of all cases. So, in all likelihood, both Griner and her defense understand that a conviction is the most likely scenario in her case as well.”

Meise says the plea may mean a lesser sentence for Griner as well.

“Had there been a trial, the chances are that if she were found guilty, her sentence may be longer than what she will receive now, but we’ll have to see,” she says. 

Moving forward, there are a few possibilities for negotiating Griner’s release, Meise says. These include a prisoner exchange or an agreement that Griner could serve her sentence in another country. 

Botchkovar thinks the Griner team will go for the former option. “I think Griner hopes for a prisoner swap, which, the Russian side now says, will only happen after the verdict,” she says.

But it’s hard to say where the situation is headed, Meise says, as we do not know what’s happening in negotiations between the U.S. and Russia aside from official White House statements. 

Ekaterina Botchkovar, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, poses for portrait at Northeastern University. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

This lack of transparency is a good thing, she says. “These are very sensitive diplomatic negotiations. For all we know there could be lots going on,” Meise says. “It’s completely reasonable and expected that you’re not going to hear the micro-updates.”

At the same time, the lack of news has left some Americans wondering why Griner’s case isn’t getting more attention, with some alleging that it has to do with her race, gender or sexuality. But, Meise says, attention may not always be a good thing in this case.

“Drawing attention to a particular case cuts both ways,” she says. “There is a benefit if the case did not already have attention from the government. However, drawing a lot of public attention to the case may also make the person detained seem more valuable to the other side that we’re trying to negotiate with.”

Putting pressure on the U.S. government could also give Russia the upper hand in negotiations. “The idea that there may be domestic pressure to resolve this, that could be a negative to getting it resolved,” Meise says. “It gives Russia another point for negotiation.”

On the other hand, the family of Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia, attests that Griner’s status as a professional athlete is working in her favor. Whelan’s family members have accused the U.S. government of ignoring his case, The Hill reports, though Meise notes that the U.S. Secretary of State mentioned him in a recent tweet.

The Russian occupation of Ukraine adds another wrinkle to Griner’s case. Tensions between the U.S. and Russia, Meise notes, are very high, and this makes her situation even more delicate.

“At a time when you have so many different diplomatic, geopolitical, and economic chess pieces on the board, there could not be a worse time for Brittney to be in this situation,” she says. “It’s a very difficult backdrop against which to negotiate something like this.”

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