Griner’s abrupt plea came during a hearing near Moscow in a case that has underscored the frayed relations between Washington and Moscow amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin has been accused of using the American as a political pawn while the Biden administration has been under growing pressure from Griner’s family and teammates to secure her release.
A handcuffed Griner was led into court around 3:20 p.m. (8:20 a.m. ET), wearing an olive-colored shirt and glasses. She looked calm and even smiled briefly before entering the courtroom. She was joined by her lawyers and three U.S. Embassy representatives.
No filming was permitted inside the courtroom, where Griner sat in a light gray box with metal bars as she was listening to the proceedings with the help of a translator.
Griner, 31, was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She has been in custody ever since and is facing the prospect of up to 10 years in prison.
During the hearing last week, she admitted that the vape canisters were hers, but said she brought them to Russia unintentionally.
One of her lawyers, Alexander Boikov, told reporters after the hearing that Griner was in a hurry as she was packing, and the vape cartridges ended up in her luggage by accident.
In a statement released later, her legal team said that because of the “insignificant” amount of the substance found and because of Griner’s “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.”
Griner, a 6-foot-9 native of Houston, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a center for the Phoenix Mercury.
On Thursday, Griner’s defense called on Maxim Ryabkov, the director of UMMC — the Russian basketball club in the city of Yekaterinburg for which she played in the WNBA offseason, as a witness. Ryabkov called Griner “an outstanding player” and a responsible person.
The two had a brief exchange during a break, with Ryabkov asking Griner how she was doing.
Her UMMC teammate Evgenia Belyakova also testified, saying she has played with Griner for seven years and calling her “a true leader.” Belyakova called Griner’s contribution to Russian basketball “invaluable,” saying she became a role model for many. She also said she was not aware of Griner using drugs.
“We miss her very much. We miss her energy,” Belyakova said, speaking to reporters outside the court later.
The hearing has been postponed until Friday morning after a request from Griner’s defense team. Griner is expected to testify.
In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as having been “wrongfully detained” and transferred oversight of her case to the State Department presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied Griner is being held as a hostage.
Last week, President Joe Biden sought to reassure her wife, Cherelle Griner, that he was working to secure her release as fast as he could amid a mounting campaign in the U.S. for his administration to do more to bring her home.
Washington has not officially commented on any possible prisoner swaps for Griner, despite speculation in Russian state media in May that she could be exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S.
NBC News wasn’t able to confirm those reports.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Moscow was ready to work with the U.S. on a possible exchange of prisoners, but urged Washington to abandon attempts to exert pressure on Russia and not speculate on this "sensitive matter," according to the Interfax news agency.
Tatyana Chistikova reported from Moscow, and Yuliya Talmazan from London.