“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.” This is the last we’ve heard from Brittney Griner, the 31-year-old WNBA All-Star who has been detained since February in Russia, accused of drug trafficking after authorities say they found vape cartridges with 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage. She faces 10 years in prison.
Griner’s guilty plea came as a surprise to many of us rooting for her back here in the US, especially considering that, for months now, the public has almost universally agreed that the case against Griner is absurd, spurious, and politically motivated.
Setting aside for the moment the question of whether Griner truly had the cannabis oil cartridges in her luggage, the amount she’s accused of possessing is miniscule. A one-gram vape cartridge can be purchased for $12 at a dispensary in my home state of Washington, where Cannabis has been legalized. Even at the federal level, where Cannabis remains a Schedule-1 narcotic, our draconian drug laws would carry sentencing guidelines for first offense possession at a maximum of one year and up to a $1000 fine. The fact that Griner is facing ten years and a charge of trafficking for this amount is enough to make this case a travesty—even relative to our already tragic drug war. And that’s assuming the vape cartridges weren’t planted by Russian authorities, which, given Putin’s willingness to assassinate political enemies and invade sovereign countries, is not at all a safe assumption.
In May, the US State Department went so far as to declare Griner wrongfully detained, with officials promising to do whatever it takes to secure Griner’s release. To then hear Griner plead guilty, even of unintentionally carrying a banned substance, rings false to our American ears. Only guilty people plead guilty.
However, Griner’s guilty plea is understandable in the context of a legal system that heavily favors the prosecution, in which a guilty verdict is all but a foregone conclusion—Russian courts have a 99.75% conviction rate. Even in Stalin’s Russia, the state won only nine out ten cases. Woe to the American accused and locked up abroad.
I can’t tell you how many times people have, with good intentions, maligned the Italian justice system to me—those corrupt, incompetent Italians!—as if it were all roses and rainbows in our own criminal legal system. While Russia’s system is worse, ours is hardly worthy of a passing grade. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, two-thirds of those exonerated for drug crimes had previously pled guilty. Those are just the ones we know about thanks to the hard work of innocence organizations. Guilty pleas account for 95% of felony convictions in the US. Most of those people never really get their day in court; they get an hour at best. How many of them are truly guilty? How many of their confessions are false? The National Registry of Exonerations also notes that 70% of people exonerated for homicide had falsely confessed, many to avoid the death penalty.
I wonder if this kind of thinking is what motivated Griner’s guilty plea. “I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote in her letter to President Biden. I hope she isn’t detained forever, but I’m also hesitant to place too much faith in the power and willingness of our own government to step in and bring Griner home. The US Government didn’t bring me home, after all. The most I heard was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledging to the press that she was aware of my case. But perhaps the grand financial and diplomatic ties between the US and Italy vastly outweighed the tragedy of one innocent US citizen wrongfully detained.
Griner’s situation is different, as Russia is a hostile state, and diplomatic relations are already shattered with the US funding the Ukrainian defense against the Russian invasion. There’s even speculation that the Russians may have detained Griner in a bid to arrange a prison exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is currently serving 25 years in federal prison. Perhaps Griner even pled guilty on the advice that a political exchange might be possible, at least much more possible if she allowed the Russian authorities to save face by confessing to their absurd charges.
But I’m skeptical that the US would release Bout, given the vast imbalance of his crimes versus those Griner is accused of. I’m also, sadly, skeptical that Russia or Putin stands to gain much from releasing Griner for anything less. It’s not like they lose global esteem or diplomatic allies at this point by detaining Griner indefinitely.
Today, Griner’s trial resumes. Here, she has promised to say more about the circumstances that gave rise to this predicament. It may be the truth, it may not. What’s certain is that it’s what Griner and her legal team feel compelled to say while at the mercy of the Russian state.
What should we make of all this? For me, it’s a good reminder that though Griner’s predicament seems very extreme—and it is in a way, for few and far between are those detained abroad on absurd charges as political pawns in a time of war—it’s also not rare at all. Here in the U.S. nearly 400,000 people are imprisoned for drug offenses and police make over one million drug possession arrests a year. Given that upwards of 90% of defendants plead guilty, and that so few of those who do go to trial get acquitted—federal prosecutors in the U.S. have a 99.6% conviction rate—one wonders how many Brittney Griner’s are rotting away in our own penitentiaries right now, forgotten men and women, locked away for a little weed, having pled guilty knowing they never stood a chance.