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Inside the courtroom at Brittney Griner's trial in Russia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Yesterday, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to the wife of Brittney Griner and pledged to bring her home. Griner is the WNBA star currently being held in Russia on drug charges. And today she pleaded guilty as her trial continued in a Russian court. NPR's Charles Maynes was in the courtroom in Moscow today and is on the line with us now. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So can you just paint the scene for us? Like, what was it like in there inside the courtroom?

MAYNES: Well, first of all, it was hot, and it was cramped. You know, this was a small courtroom in the summertime with no air conditioning and 20 people packed into it - among them, Brittney Griner, in a small locked cage in the corner. She actually sat quietly through most of the hearing today, occasionally standing up to address the judge with a quick, you know, yes or no, Your Honor, and kind of stooping to avoid hitting her head. She's 6'9", after all. But the prosecution today presented two more witnesses who said they were there at a Moscow airport in February when customs officials discovered these vape cartridges with what they later determined was hash oil in Griner's bags. You know, and as the prosecution was wrapping for the day, Griner suddenly said she had something to say. This is the voice of Griner and her Russian court interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRITTNEY GRINER: I would like to plead guilty on the charges against me.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Russian).

GRINER: But I had no intention on breaking any Russian law.

MAYNES: So she essentially confessed.

CHANG: Yeah.

MAYNES: And she went on to explain that she was in a rush packing, and the cartridges accidentally ended up in her bag.

CHANG: Wow. So, I mean, after this, I guess, unexpected confession, what happens next in these proceedings for her?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Griner and her lawyers say they'll explain her actions in more detail when the trial picks up again in a week's time on July 14. Her lawyers also made it clear that this was Brittney Griner's decision to plead guilty. They explained to her the consequences, which is, in fact, a possible 10-year jail sentence. But Griner, they said, argued she was a role model. She recognized that. She felt as though she should own up to her mistakes. And the defense said that they hoped the judge would take that into account during sentencing.

CHANG: I mean, I do want to step back a little bit, Charles, because this case unfolded obviously against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, cratering U.S.-Russia relations. The U.S. says Griner is being wrongfully detained. But given her guilty plea today, is that fair to say that she is being wrongfully detained?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Russian officials on the one hand say this is just a drug case. On the other, they openly hint at the idea of a possible prisoner swap - a trade involving Griner. Today, Russia's deputy foreign minister said that hype by Washington was undermining a potential prisoner swap. He also suggested that that swap would only happen after the trial had concluded. And so you have to wonder if that political reality was a factor in Griner's decision.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, speaking of, the White House this week made clear that getting Griner home was a priority. I know that President Biden spoke with Griner's wife, apparently sent her a letter. What do we know about what's inside that letter?

MAYNES: Well, we know from the trial today there were embassy officials on hand, including Elizabeth Rood. She's the deputy chief of mission who had this to say afterwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH ROOD: Again, I was able to speak with Ms. Griner in the courtroom. She said that she's eating well. She's able to read books. And under the circumstances, she is doing well. Most important, I was able to share with Ms. Griner a letter from President Biden, and Ms. Griner was able to read that letter.

MAYNES: Now, we don't know the contents, but the White House has been very public in saying they're working overtime to get Griner home. And Russia has made it very clear the trial has to end before that's even a possibility. So Griner's confession today would appear to be part of a legal strategy to bring a quicker close to her trial and give the president some options.

CHANG: That is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.