Texas Woman Held in Russian Prison May Be Released in Prisoner Exchange

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According to CNN, Brittney Griner is a Texas native and a WNBA star who was arrested in February for drug possession in a Moscow airport. During the offseason for the WNBA, Griner plays in Russia, and she is currently on trial for drug smuggling charges – after being found with less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage.

There is now talk of a prisoner exchange between Russia and the United States, but the details are exceedingly complicated.

If you are facing criminal charges of any kind, it is essential to work closely with a skilled criminal defense attorney.

Griner’s Trial

Griner’s trial began in early July, and new photos show the two-time Olympic gold medal winner standing in a cage in the courtroom prior to one of her hearings. It is reported that Russian criminal cases have a 99 percent conviction rate, and in the face of this near certainty, Gainer pled guilty to the charge levied against her, which could bring a sentence of 10 years.

Griner explained to the court that bringing the cannabis oil, which was prescribed for her “severe chronic pain,” into the country was due to her hasty packing efforts and that she had not intended to break any of the country’s laws.

In a letter to President Biden, Griner wrote – “Please don't forget about me and the other American Detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home.” Her request may be granted.

Support for Griner

Under Putin’s rule, Russia has engaged in persecutions based on homophobia. Griner is a Black, gay woman whose release is championed by groups representing people of color and the LGBTQ community. Griner’s Russian teammates have also shown support. Griner’s family continues to call on the Biden administration to negotiate her release, even if it means exchanging prisoners.

While it is not difficult to understand why Ms. Griner has elicited the degree of support she has, it is less clear why the Kremlin is so attached to the prisoner they are requesting in the exchange.

The prisoner in question is a kingpin of organized crime with clear links to war criminals and terrorists. In fact, the Russian government has gone so far as honoring the prisoner whose release they request with an art exhibition of the pencil sketches he created in federal prison.

The Biden Administration Makes an Offer

On July 27, the Biden administration – according to the Texas Tribune – offered to release the Russian arms trafficker currently incarcerated in the U.S. in exchange for the release of Griner and another American prisoner who has been incarcerated for espionage in Russia since 2018. Based on an ongoing conversation with the Russians, the exchange should prove successful.

The President is expected to discuss the matter with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in the near future – marking the first meeting of its kind since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier in the year, another Texan was released in a similar exchange (for a Russian pilot who was carrying out a 25-year bid in federal prison for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine).

The Merchant of Death

The New York Times explains the exchange somewhat more ominously – in terms of the vast disparity in the charges at hand. Gainer is described as an American basketball star who is accused of bringing hashish oil into Russia (via her luggage).

In contrast, the arms dealer the U.S. will surrender (Viktor Bout) is a former Soviet military officer described as having made a fortune in trafficking weapons globally and is known as the “merchant of death” for his conspiratorial sale of weapons to those who wanted them for the professed use of killing Americans. His story is told in the film Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage.

The administration’s hesitancy in such an exchange is well understood, but the pressure to obtain Griner’s freedom is just as clear. The State Department classified Griner as “wrongfully detained.” The concern is that the Kremlin is leveraging Griner’s release in the heated Ukraine conflict.

In the end, the U.S. hesitates to incentivize the arrest or abduction of American citizens abroad. (Prisoner exchanges are often read as a form of incentive.) Freeing a known weapons trafficker with an anti-American bent in exchange for a young, professional athlete who was caught with a cannabis vape cartridge in her luggage is seen by many as a step too far.

Bout’s Attorney

Bout’s attorney in the United States reports that Russia is, indeed, pushing for Bout’s freedom. Ever since Bout was convicted of offering to sell serious weaponry that included antiaircraft missiles to federal agents posing as revolutionaries, Bout's release has been among the confirmed priorities of the Kremlin.

Bout’s attorney shares that the United States should not expect additional prisoner exchanges with Russia until or unless Bout is one of its offerings.

The State Department is on the record as dismissing the practice of global prisoner exchanges due to the dangerous precedent they set. According to a spokesperson for the department, “using wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working and living abroad.”

Earlier Exchange

The U.S. made a prisoner exchange with Russia earlier this year that involved a former Marine from Texas (who had been incarcerated since 2019 for charges related to assaulting two police officers) for a Russian pilot who was eleven years into a twenty-year sentence for drug smuggling.

However, The White House made it clear that the exchange was predicated on the U.S. Marine’s deteriorating health (rendering the case exceptional).

Criminal Charges in Texas

While criminal exchanges are a dramatic example of the criminal justice system, facing any kind of criminal charge in the State of Texas is a serious matter, and a conviction can be life altering.

Although charges and attendant sentences can vary considerably – depending upon the specifics involved – Texas uses a system of determinate sentencing, which means that there are guidelines in place that are intended to ensure that sentencing is rational and consistent.

In Texas, crimes are grouped into the following offense levels:

  • Class C misdemeanor

  • Class B misdemeanor

  • Class A misdemeanor

  • State jail felony

  • Third-degree felony

  • Second-degree felony

  • First-degree felony

  • Capital felony


Misdemeanor charges are the least serious in the state, but they can still pack a considerable punch in terms of the fines and punishments you will face. Misdemeanors are ranked from least serious (Class C misdemeanor) to most serious (Class A misdemeanor).

While you will not lose any civil rights as a result of a misdemeanor conviction, you can be slapped with considerable fines and jail time. Consider the following consequences for misdemeanor convictions:

Class C Misdemeanors

For a Class C misdemeanor, such as a moving violation or a public intoxication charge, a conviction can lead to a fine of up to $500 but comes with no jail time. Such charges do entitle the accused to a trial.

Class B Misdemeanors

If you are convicted of a Class B misdemeanor, you could face up to 180 days in county jail, fines of up to $2,000, and up to 2 years of probation (3 years if an extension is employed). Common examples of Class B misdemeanors include first-offense DWIs, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, criminal trespassing, and more.

Class A Misdemeanors

A Class A misdemeanor can lead to a jail sentence of up to one year, fines of up to $4,000, and up to 2 years of probation (3 years if an extension is employed). Common examples of Class A misdemeanors include lying under oath in court (perjury), a second offense DWI, and possession of 2 to 4 ounces of marijuana.

It is important to note that if you are a first-time offender facing a misdemeanor charge that could earn you jail time, a deferred adjudication may be available to you. Deferred adjudication involves pleading guilty (or no contest) to the charge levied against you in exchange for a probationary period in which you must fulfill specific obligations set forth by the court.

Upon completion, the charge is dropped from your record, but if you fail to fulfill your obligations, you can face the sentence you would have received if your adjudication had not been deferred.

Contact a criminal defense attorney to see if you qualify for deferred adjudication.

State Jail Felonies

A state jail felony does not rise to the level of felonies that are categorized by degree in Texas, but the associated fines and penalties are, nonetheless, very serious. A conviction can lead to 180 days to 2 years in jail and fines of up to $10,000. Probation may also be required.

Common examples of state jail felonies include DWI with a child passenger, criminally negligent homicide, and check forgery.

When it comes to state jail felonies, there is no time off for good behavior. Unlike misdemeanors and other felony charges, the sentences associated with state jail felonies must be served in full. However, state jail felony charges are sometimes reduced to misdemeanor charges that require no jail time. Professional legal guidance can improve your chances considerably.

Third-Degree Felonies

Third-degree felonies are more serious still and include charges such as the following:

  • Intoxication assault

  • Deadly conduct with a firearm

  • Felon in possession of a firearm

  • Indecent exposure to a child

  • Third offense DWI

  • Evidence tampering

  • Stalking

  • Jumping bail (for a felony charge)

  • Third offense violation of a protective order

  • Escape from felony custody

A conviction on a second-degree felony charge can leave you facing a prison sentence of 2 to 10 years, fines of up to $10,000, and a potentially lengthy probation period.

Second-Degree Felonies

A conviction for any of the following common examples of second-degree felonies in Texas can buy you from 2 to 20 years in prison, fines of up to $10,000, and the potential of also facing probation upon release:

  • Human trafficking

  • Aggravated assault

  • Sexual assault

  • Improper educator-student relationship

  • Online solicitation of someone under the age of 14

  • Indecent contact with a child

  • Possession of from 50 to 2,000 pounds of marijuana

  • Manslaughter and intoxication manslaughter

  • Arson

  • Robbery

  • Second offense stalking

  • Evading arrest that involves the death of another person

  • Bribery

  • Bigamy (marriage to more than one person)

First-Degree Felonies

If you are charged with a first-degree felony, the sentencing for a conviction includes from 2 to 99 years (or life) in prison, fines of up to $10,000, and a potential probation requirement upon your release. Common examples of first-degree felony charges include the following offenses:

  • Solicitation of capital murder

  • Attempted capital murder

  • Aggravated kidnapping

  • Aggravated robbery

  • Escape from custody involving serious bodily injury

  • Aggravated sexual assault of a child

  • Aggravated assault of a public servant

  • Causing serious bodily injury to a child, senior citizen, or person with a disability

  • Burglarizing a habitation with the intent to commit a felony

  • Human trafficking of someone who is younger than 14

  • Arson of a habitation that leads to death

Capital Felonies

The most serious charge you can face in Texas is a capital felony, and the sentence for a conviction can be either life in prison or the death sentence. Examples of capital felonies include the following:

  • Premeditated murder (known as capital murder)

  • Murder with special circumstances, such as murder that involves another crime, intentional murder, murder that is committed with a firearm, murder of a police officer, or a second murder offense

  • Espionage

  • Treason

  • Aircraft hijacking that leads to death

  • Genocide

Seek the Legal Guidance of an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney

Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a formidable criminal defense attorney who is committed to skillfully fighting for your case’s best possible resolution. We are here to help, so please do not wait to contact us online or call us at (254) 781-4222 today.