(NEW YORK) — As Brittney Griner returned to court in Russia on Tuesday for her drawn-out trial on drug charges, the American basketball star told ABC News she has a message for her wife, Cherelle, who recently graduated from law school.
“Good luck on the bar exam,” Griner said.
Griner briefly spoke to ABC News during a break in Tuesday’s proceedings at a courthouse in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. When asked whether she has any complaints, she said: “No, no complaints. Just waiting patiently.”
She arrived in court that morning holding up two photographs in a clear, plastic sleeve. When asked during the break who was in the photos, she told ABC News: “My wife. My two best friends, my teammates.”
Griner’s legal team continued to present evidence and called another witness to testify on Tuesday as pressure mounts on the United States to secure her release.
Griner, a 31-year-old Houston native who plays professional basketball for the Phoenix Mercury, was returning to Russia to play in the WNBA’s offseason when she was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki on Feb. 17, after being accused of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in the country.
Cherelle Griner has told ABC News that she has communicated with Brittney Griner “sporadically” through letters but hasn’t spoken to her via telephone since she was arrested. The U.S. government had arranged for the couple to connect on the phone last month, during their fourth anniversary, but that had to be rescheduled due to a “logistical error,” according to U.S. Department of State spokesperson Ned Price.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist was expected to testify last week, but her testimony was delayed until Wednesday at the request of her legal team so she could have more time to prepare. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison and also has a right to an appeal.
Griner pleaded guilty on drug charges in court last week, saying that the vape cartridges containing hashish oil were in her luggage mistakenly. She said she had no “intention” of breaking Russian law and did not mean to leave the cartridges in her bag.
Her legal team told ABC News in a statement last week that her “guilty” plea was recommended by her Russian attorneys.
“Brittney sets an example of being brave. She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people,” the lawyers said in the statement. “Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
Since Griner’s trial began on July 1, several Russian individuals have testified in court as character witnesses about their experience with the Phoenix Mercury center, who also played in the WNBA offseason for UMMC, a Russian basketball club in the city of Yekaterinburg.
The first witness was Maxim Ryabkov, the director of UMMC. The second witness was team doctor Anatoly Galabin, who said that Griner never tested positive for doping while playing for the team. A third witness, Evgenia Belyakova, one of Griner’s Russian teammates, said that Griner was the leader of the team.
One of Griner’s attorney also presented a letter from an American doctor in court earlier this month, giving Griner permission to use cannabis to reduce chronic pain.
On Tuesday, a Russian narcologist, Dr. Mikhail Vityushkin, testified that cannabis is often used by professional athletes to treat sports injuries because of its therapeutic properties, including analgesic and anti-inflammatory. However, with constant use, it may impair motor coordination and reaction time, which is why athletes should not take it permanently, according to Vityushkin. He also noted that there are no international standards to differentiate medical cannabis from a drug.
The U.S. Department of State classified Griner’s case on May 3 as “wrongfully detained.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters earlier this month that Griner’s guilty plea will have “no impact” on any of the negotiations to bring her home.
Calls to free Griner escalated following the May release of U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who was freed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange. Former Marine Paul Whelan has also been detained in Russia since 2019.
“This is something that is, as you’ve heard from us consistently, is an absolute priority for Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken,” Price, the State Department spokesperson, told reporters during Monday’s press briefing in Washington, D.C. “We are working around the clock, behind the scenes, quietly, to do everything we possibly can to see to it that Brittany Griner’s ordeal, just as Paul Whelan’s ordeal, is put to an end just as soon as can be possibly managed.”
Price added that Chargé d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood, from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, was expected to be at Griner’s hearings this week.
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