Timeline of Brittney Griner's detention in Russia as US secures her release

The WNBA star was sentenced to nine years in prison on drug charges.

December 8, 2022, 10:14 AM

WNBA star Brittney Griner was released this week in a prisoner exchange with Russia, where she has been detained since Feb. 17 and was sentenced to nine years in Russia prison after she was found guilty of drug charges.

The U.S. classified Griner as "wrongfully detained" in May and has been working for months to secure her freedom.

In an agreement with the U.S., Russia swapped Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Here's a look back at Griner's trial and major developments in her case:

Brittney Griner warms up for the in Los Angeles, Aug. 8. 2019.
Meg Oliphant/Getty Images, FILE

Brittney Griner timeline:

Feb. 17

Griner, a 31-year-old Houston native and professional basketball player for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, is detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki as she returns to Russia to play during the WNBA's off-season. She is accused of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in the country.

Feb. 24

Russia invades Ukraine, unleashing airstrikes on cities and military bases.

March 16

After imposing a wave of new sanctions against Russia, President Joe Biden labels Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal" during a press conference at the White House amid a State Department review of whether the U.S. considers Russia's attacks on Ukrainian civilians a war crime.

March 17

Concerns in the U.S. over the well-being of Brittney Griner grow as Russia extends the pre-trial detention of the WNBA star until May 19. The extension of Griner's detention comes during a volatile time for U.S.-Russian relations as Russian President Vladimir Putin escalates attacks on Ukraine.

March 18

The U.S. State Department issues a statement demanding access to Griner. "We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Brittney Griner's legal team. We insist the Russian government provide consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial detention, as Brittney Griner is," it says.

March 23

Griner meets with U.S. officials for the first time since being held in pre-trial detention in Russia for over a month.

"The consular officer who visited with Brittney Griner was able to verify that she is doing as well as can be expected under these very difficult circumstances," State Department spokesman Ned Price tells reporters.

Griner's meeting comes as Secretary of State Antony Blinken announces that the State Department has made a formal assessment that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

"Based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia's forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. Our assessment is based on a careful review of available information from public and intelligence sources," Blinken said in a statement.

April 27

Calls to free Griner and other Americans detained in Russia escalate following the release of U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed on April 27, who was freed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange. Former Marine Paul Whelan has also been detained in Russia since 2019.

Brittney Griner walks after the court's verdict in Khimki, Russia Aug. 4, 2022.
Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

May 3

The U.S. State Department announces that the U.S. government has classified Griner's case as "wrongfully detained" in Russia. With this classification, the U.S. becomes more involved in negotiating for her freedom as opposed to waiting for her case to play out in the Russian legal system.

May 6

The WNBA honors Griner with a floor decal bearing her initials and jersey number (42) on the sideline of all 12 WNBA teams as the 2022 season kicked off.

May 13

Russia extends Griner's pre-trial detention until June 18 as the U.S. works to secure her release.

May 25

Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, speaks with "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts about her wife's detention and urges President Joe Biden to do everything he can to bring her home.

Cherelle Griner says that her wife texted her when she was first taken into custody, but Brittney's phone is taken soon after.

She says she is "grateful" for a call from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, but adds that she would also like to also speak with Biden.

"I just keep hearing that, you know, he has the power. She's a political pawn," she said. "So if they're holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it."

June 8

As the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors prepare to face off in the 2022 NBA finals, players call attention to Griner's case.

"She needs to be home, she needs to be safe, she needs to be with her family," Warriors point guard Steph Curry tells ESPN.

June 14

A Russian court extends Griner's pre-trial detention for a third time, and says that she will remain in custody until July 2.

June 20

Cherelle Griner tells The Associated Press that she has lost "trust" in the U.S. government after a planned anniversary call between the couple didn't take place because the embassy line wasn't staffed over the weekend.

"I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up," Cherelle Griner said.

Brittney Griner stands inside a defendants' cage during the reading of the court's verdict in Khimki, Russia, Aug. 4, 2022.
Evgenia Novozhenina/POOL via Reuters

"We deeply regret that Brittney Griner was unable to speak with her wife because of a logistical error," a State Department spokesperson told ABC News, adding that the call will be rescheduled for a later date.

June 27

Griner attends a preliminary hearing as her detention is extended for the fourth time and the first day of her trial is set for July 1.

June 30

Friends and family members of Griner gather for a vigil outside the Russian Consulate in New York City

July 1

Griner's trial begins in Russia.

July 4

Griner personally reaches out to President Biden, urging him to help get her out of Russian custody, in a handwritten letter delivered to the president on the 4th of July.

"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," Griner wrote to the president.

July 5

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tells reporters during a briefing that Biden read Griner's handwritten letter and her case is a "top priority" for the president.

July 6

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris calls Cherelle Griner to "reassure" her that they are working to secure her wife's release, the White House announced.

July 7

Griner pleads guilty on drug charges, saying that the vape cartridges containing hashish oil were in her luggage unintentionally. She said that she had "no intention" of breaking Russian law and packed the cartridges by accident.

During the hearing, U.S. officials who attended the trial delivered a response letter to Griner from Biden, the State Department said.

July 8

Cherelle Griner speaks out at a press conference

, saying that she read the letter Biden wrote to her wife and it brought both of them "so much joy.""I believe every word that she said to him, he understood and he sees her as a person," Cherelle Griner said. "And he has not forgotten her, which was her biggest cry in her letter."

July 14

Character witnesses take the stand in Griner's trial as the U.S works to secure her release.

July 15

Griner appears for the fourth day of her trial, where her attorney presents a letter from an American doctor giving Griner permission to use cannabis to reduce chronic pain. Griner is expected to testify but her testimony is delayed.

July 26

Griner returns to court, where she speaks briefly with ABC News and shares a message for her wife, Cherelle, who recently graduated from law school. "Good luck on the bar exam," Griner said.

July 27

Griner testifies in court, saying she did not mean to leave the vape cartridges in her bag, but that she was in a hurry and was stressed after recovering from COVID-19 that month. She adds that she had permission to use medical cannabis and used a certificate to buy it in the U.S.

In a sharp reversal, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced later that day that he will hold a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov "in the coming days" to discuss securing Griner and Whelan's freedom.

"We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release," he said.

July 29

Blinken tells reporters that he had a "frank and direct conversation" with Lavrov about a U.S. proposal to exchange convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in return for Griner and Whelan's freedom.

"I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner," Blinken said. "I'm not going to characterize his responses and I can't give you an assessment of whether I think things are more or less likely, but it was important that [he] hear directly from me on that."

Aug. 4

Griner is found guilty on drug charges and sentenced to nine years in prison as her trial came to an end.

Griner's attorneys, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, told reporters outside of the courthouse in Moscow on Thursday that they plan to file an appeal.

Biden slammed Russia in a statement and called on Russia to "release her immediately."

"My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible," he said.

Aug. 14

A senior Russian diplomat confirms that exchange talks between the U.S. and Russia are underway.

"This quite sensitive issue of the swap of convicted Russian and US citizens is being discussed through the channels defined by our presidents. These individuals are, indeed, being discussed," Alexander Darchiev, head of the foreign ministry's North America Department, told Russian state news agency TASS. "The Russian side has long been seeking the release of Viktor Bout. The details should be left to professionals, proceeding from the 'do not harm' principle."

Aug. 15

Griner's attorneys file an appeal for her nine-year prison sentence, according to Blagovolina.

Oct. 25

A Russian judge rejected Griner's appeal of her nine-year prison sentence after just a half hour. Griner appeared via video before the appeal was denied, saying, "I beg that the court takes in all of the stakes that was overlooked in the first court and reassess my sentence here."

"I want to apologize for this mistake," Griner said. "I did not intend to do this but I understand the charges brought against me. It's been very stressful and traumatic [being away from my family]."

Nov. 9

Griner was transferred to a penal colony to serve out her sentence but her location was initially not known publicly, raising concerns about her well-being.

"My hope is that now that the election is over, that Mr. Putin will be able to discuss with us and be willing to talk more seriously about prisoner exchange. That is my intention," Biden told ABC News after Griner was transferred.

Nov. 10

Sullivan told reporters that U.S. officials at the American embassy in Moscow are "on top of Brittney Griner's condition, location and how the Russian government is treating her. She is being held unjustly. She should be released immediately."

Nov. 17

Griner's attorneys shared her location in a statement, saying that the WNBA star was transferred to a penal colony IK-2 in the Russian region of Mordovia.

Nov. 18

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian media that a prisoner exchange with the U.S. may be possible.

"The Americans are showing some external activity. We are working professionally through a special channel designed for this," Ryabkov said. "Viktor Bout is among those who are being discussed and we certainly count on a positive result."

Nov. 28

U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in Russia Elizabeth Rood told reporters the WNBA star has not complained about the conditions in the Russian colony.

“As far as we understood from communication with her, she is healthy and feels as good as can be expected in her difficult circumstances,” Rood said.

Dec. 8

After months of negotiations, the U.S. announced that Griner was released in a prisoner exchange with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

President Biden, joined by Griner's wife at the White House, told reporters that the road to Griner’s release involved "painstaking and intense negotiations" and he thanked those who "worked tirelessly to secure her release."

"She's relieved to finally be heading home and the fact remains that she's lost months of her life, experienced a needless trauma," Biden said. "She deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained."

Griner landed in the United Arab Emirates, which helped facilitate the transfer, Biden said.

Meanwhile, Biden also vowed to "never give up" on securing Whelan's freedom.

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up. We will never give up," he said.

ABC News' Tanya Stukalova, Justin Gomez, Karen Travers, Shannon Crawford, Max Karmen, Joseph Simonetti, William Gretsky, Molly Nagle and Teddy Grant contributed to this report.

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