It’s been over five months since Russian police claimed to have found cannabis oil in luggage belonging to WNBA superstar Brittney Griner. The relationship between the United States and Russia has been contentious for a long time, and matters were only made worse after Russia invaded Ukraine one week after Griner’s detainment. Fans immediately rallied around the eight-time All Star, but many of her closest friends and family were noticeably quiet. While it may not have made sense to most, the reasoning behind their silence was that they wanted to avoid the politicization of the case.
All of that changed once the U.S. State Department spoke out publicly on May 3, declaring that the two-time Olympic gold medalist had been “wrongfully detained” and disclosing that the government would be working to secure her release. After that, the floodgates of public support opened, and the fight was on to bring Griner home. Stars from several different industries showed their support via tweets, clothing, and even petitions. One of her sport’s biggest stars, LeBron James, tweeted on behalf of his company, Uninterrupted.
“For over 100 days, BG has faced inhumane conditions in a Russian prison and has been denied communications with her family and loved ones. As a decorated Olympian and member of an elite global sports community, BG’s detention must be resolved out of respect for the sanctity of all sport and for all Americans traveling internationally,” read the June 5 tweet. He further demanded that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris bring Griner back to U.S. soil immediately and implored others to join the cause via a Change.org petition titled, “Secure Brittney Griner’s Swift and Safe Return to the U.S.” There are over 346,500 signatures and counting. No one expected this process to be easy; however, several are frustrated with what they perceive to be stagnation in the matter. Of all that have spoken out, Griner’s wife Cherelle has arguably been one of the loudest.
The North Carolina Central University School of Law graduate has emphatically pleaded with the White House to do something. In an interview with ESPN back in May, Cherelle said of President Biden, “There is one person that can go get her, and that’s our president. He has that power. You know, I’m just like, ‘Why are we not using it? Like, urgently, use it.’ We’re expecting him to use his power to get it done.” Unable to speak with her wife since the day of detention, she has had to lean on people who were virtual strangers to her before this whole ordeal. “I have to trust people that I didn’t even know until Feb. 17. So I’m trusting her lawyers. … ‘How does she look? How is her spirit? How is her energy?’ I’m just asking all those questions, trying to just get some type of indication or vibe. Some days they say, ‘She’s really strong … She seemed in good spirits when we talked.’ And sometimes they’ll say, ‘Her energy was really low.'” When a call was finally scheduled for June 18 – for their fourth anniversary – no one was at the embassy to take the call. The communication had been approved by the Russian government but when the time came, Brittney Griner’s 11 calls to U.S. embassy in Moscow all went unanswered. Although scheduled two weeks in advance, the phone number provided only transfer calls on the weekdays and the call was scheduled on a Saturday. The State Department apologized for the error, but it only further fueled Cherelle’s distrust of the government. She told the Associated Press, “I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now. If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”
Biden and Harris finally spoke with Cherelle on July 6 after Brittney Griner penned a letter to the White House, detailing her fears of not being able to return home. “(As) I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” wrote the Phoenix Mercury center. The handwritten letter went on to plead with the president to not forget her, while describing how her perspective of “freedom” has changed:
“On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home,” Griner continued. A readout of Biden’s call with Cherelle was posted on the White House website and read as follows:
“President Biden, joined by Vice President Harris, spoke today with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner who is wrongfully detained in Russia under intolerable circumstances. The President called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world. He also read her a draft of the letter the President is sending to Brittney today.
The President offered his support to Cherelle and Brittney’s family, and he committed to ensuring they are provided with all possible assistance while his administration pursues every avenue to bring Brittney home. Today’s call follows calls that National Security Advisor Sullivan and Secretary of State Blinken have had with Cherelle in recent weeks and this past weekend. The President directed his national security team to remain in regular contact with Cherelle and Brittney’s family, and with other families of Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad, to keep them updated on efforts to secure the release of their loved ones as quickly as possible.”
After her pretrial detention was delayed multiple times, Griner pleaded guilty on July 7 – a move necessary before any discussions of a prisoner swap can begin. To even have the option, she must be convicted and also admit fault. Additionally, Russian criminal cases have a 99% conviction rate and the plea decision was reached after extension conversations with her family and legal team. Earlier this month, her legal team stated in court that the hooper has a prescription for medical cannabis for pain treatment. Medical records detailing a history of chronic pain were also submitted to the court for consideration. Still, Alexander Boikov, one of Brittney’s attorneys, maintains that bringing the substance with her was not intentional and attributes the whole situation to an oversight while packing. Griner echoed this statement when she took the stand on Wednesday (July 27). “I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bags,” she testified. The two-time WNBA scoring champion, who was clean when drug tested, further explained that she had been prescribed cannabis for her inflamed knees and ankles after a knee injury forced her into a wheelchair for four months. However, with her knowledge of Russian drug laws, she never planned to bring or use the substance while playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg.
The 2014 WNBA champion had less than an ounce of cannabis oil when she was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport and accused of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance – a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Her legal team presented the argument that the arrest was improper and Griner testified, “Nobody explained anything to me.” By Russian law, her rights should have been explained to her within three hours of arrest. She should have been informed of what she was suspected of and had access to a defense attorney before her first interrogation. Furthermore, she adds she signed documents that she did not clearly understand and had to employ Google Translate to make sense of what was going on. Boikov stated that more details bolstering the defense’s stance of improper arrest, search and detention will be made available when closing arguments begin in the coming weeks. As the trial moves forward, there has been a prisoner swap proposal, backed by Biden. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will not confirm or deny the involvement of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, but says that he plans to speak with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the days to come. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said there is no agreement in place at this time. While sentiments are optimistic, no swap is possible until the court reaches a verdict. Griner is due back in court on August 2.