Eight-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was found guilty of drug possession and smuggling on August 4 in Moscow after being arrested in February. She was sentenced to nine years in prison and fined one million rubles ($16,700) under a legal system that only acquits less than 1% of defendants on average.
Griner, who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has played overseas in the offseason for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia since 2015. Upon returning to Moscow on Feb. 17, Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport after the Federal Security Service said she was carrying vaporizer cartridges containing hashish oil.
The following timeline details the events leading up to Griner’s arrest, the controversy surrounding her detainment and trial, and the WNBA reactions that have occurred since.
Jan. 23: The State Department issues a Level 4 Travel Advisory – Do Not Travel for Russia as a result of the tension along the country’s border with Ukraine.
Jan. 29: Griner plays her last game for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg before the league’s two-week break for FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament. She leaves the country.
Feb. 10-14: Team USA hosts the Group D qualifying tournament which includes Russia, Belguim and Puerto Rico. Those four countries compete against one another over five days. The United States does not play Russia but collects wins over Belgium on Feb. 11 and Puerto Rico on Feb. 12. Griner does not play in either contest.
Feb. 17: Griner returns to Russia and is arrested in the Moscow airport on drug charges.
March 5: Russian Customs Service announces that they arrested Griner last month in February for possession of hashish cartridges.
March 5: A WNBA spokeswoman says all WNBA players besides Griner have left Russia and Ukraine. Some left as soon as Russia’s invasion over Ukraine took place, but by Saturday, March 5, everyone returned home.
March 17: Griner’s detention in Russia is extended through May 19.
March 23: The State Department gets “consular access” to Griner for the first time, confirming that she is both safe and healthy.
April 19: Griner’s missing presence on the court affects her teammates, who decide to speak out on her behalf. The Phoenix Mercury continue to support Griner by lobbying the administration and urging support for the WNBA administration.
“I definitely wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, worrying about BG," first-year Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said.
“If people seriously care about keeping our athletes over here and making sure female athletes are paid at a higher rate, then they need to put their dollars behind our league. Support us.”
April 27: Marine veteran Trevor Reed is freed as part of a prisoner exchange with Russia, raising questions from Griner’s supporters about whether the US government might also consider an exchange to secure her release.
May 3: The State Department reclassifies Griner as wrongfully detained. This meant the United States began to more aggressively work to secure her release simultaneously to the legal case playing out.
May 6: The WNBA season officially begins. The Phoenix Mercury opens the 2022 regular season at home against Las Vegas.
May 13: Griner’s detention in Russia is extended another month, to June 13.
May 18: Russia denies visits from the US Embassy to see Griner.
May 25: Griner’s wife, Cherelle, does an interview with Good Morning America, saying she’s been pressuring the administration and President Biden for more action to bring Brittney home.
“My push is for the American administration right now, the Biden administration, to do exactly that,” Cherelle said. “To make a deal for BG because she is wrongfully detained.”
June 13: The State Department meets with WNBA representatives about Griner’s case. The meeting involves officials from the specialized office that advocates for hostages and wrongfully detained Americans.
June 14: Griner’s detention in Russia is extended for a third time.
June 18: A call that was supposed to occur between Brittney and wife Cherelle did not happen because of a miscommunication at the US Embassy in Moscow. The State Department says on June 21 that the call will be rescheduled.
June 22: WNBA commissioner Kathy Engelbert announces Griner as an honorary All-Star starter for this year’s All-Star game, which will take place on July 10.
June 27: At a preliminary hearing, Griner’s trial date is officially set for July 1. Griner is ordered to remain in Russian custody for the duration of her trial.
July 1: The trial for Griner begins in Russian court.
July 4: Griner sends a handwritten letter to President Biden pleading for his help. The WNBA star makes an appeal that is passed to the White House expressing her fear that she might never return home and asking that he not “forget about me and the other American Detainees.” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirms the next day that Biden has read the letter.
July 6: Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris speak on the phone with Cherelle Griner, assuring her they are "working to secure Brittney's release as soon as possible." Meanwhile, the Phoenix Mercury hold a rally calling for Griner's release.
July 7: Griner pleads guilty, saying she packed in haste and didn't intend to break Russian law. The trial will continue, as guilty pleas do not automatically end a trial under the Russian judicial system.
July 14: Griner didn’t testify on the third day of her drugs possession trial that is underway in Russia, but character witnesses did testify in her defense as her trial continues.
July 15: Griner's lawyers present documents in court including a doctor's letter that recommended she take medical cannabis to treat chronic pain. The day before, two character witnesses had testified on her behalf from her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. The next hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, July 26.
July 20: Athletes including Steph Curry, Nneka Ogwumike and Megan Rapinoe paid tribute to Griner and called for her release at the ESPY Awards. The next day, the spokesperson for Russia's Foreign Ministry said the State Department's classification of Griner as wrongfully detained showed disrespect for Russian law.
July 27: Griner testified about her experience upon being arrested in February. According to her, the interpreter did not fully explain what was going on, she was not given access to a lawyer, and she was told to sign documents that she couldn't read.
Later that day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken revealed that weeks earlier, the US had offered Russia a deal aiming at the release of both Griner and Paul Whelan, an American who was arrested in Russia in 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence. Blinken did not say what the US offered in return. According to Blinken, Russia has not responded to the offer, but he has requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The two ministers last spoke on Feb. 15, about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
August 4: Griner was found guilty on drug possession and smuggling, with the court ruling that she brought the drugs into Russia deliberately. Before the ruling, she made a statement, saying in part, “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. 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.”
President Biden called the verdict "unacceptable" and said he would continue to work to bring Griner and Whelan home.