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Examining the legal strategy of WNBA star Brittney Griner who's on trial in Russia


In a courtroom outside Moscow, WNBA star Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty to possession of a vape cartridge containing cannabis oil. In Russia, that's punishable by up to 10 years in a penal colony. Griner also told the judge she did not intend to break the law. Theodore Simon is a veteran criminal defense attorney who has successfully won high-profile cases overseas, like that of Amanda Knox, who was acquitted of murder in Italy. Ted, what'd you think of Griner's guilty plea?

THEODORE SIMON: Well, first of all, let me open by wishing you a happy and good morning. Unfortunately, for too many Americans around the world, it's not a good morning who are incarcerated abroad. And it's just a continuing nightmare. And it certainly is one for Brittney. With respect to Brittney, she, like so many other Americans abroad, face, you know, great difficulty. They're unfamiliar with the system. It's a different language. And, of course, they don't travel with the U.S. Constitution and don't have the protections that all of us enjoy in the United States.

With regard to her guilty plea, this goes into what would be required in every foreign case. Not only do you need a detailed and comprehensive understanding of the facts and situation and history of the client, but you have to have a full understanding of the procedure and substance of the law in the foreign country so you can work within that system to accomplish the best result. You know, her guilty plea is not exactly the same thing as a guilty plea in the United States.

MARTÍNEZ: How? In what way?

SIMON: Well, insofar as there's still going to be some form of a trial to follow. In the United States, when someone enters a guilty plea, the next step is just sentencing. So there's a different system operating there. But I think along the lines of the guilty plea and in part - you know, it's very, very hard to comment precisely about this situation over there. And I also educate others not to grade the paper of other lawyers who are representing people in other cases because you simply don't know the cards they hold or what they're going to play. And no one would ever want to say or do anything to harm her. Go ahead.

MARTÍNEZ: So she pleads guilty. Then what's the trial for then at this point? What is she going to argue? What will be argued if you already pled guilty?

SIMON: Well, I'm sure what is likely to happen is they're going to lay out the facts as she - you know, when she went through the airport and put on that evidence in anything she may or may not have said in the circumstances. So it's going to be a different system. The bottom line, I think - I don't think we should be too bogged down for that in today's discussion but rather to understand, I think, the interplay between our countries and the systems.

And, you know, again, without commenting on what has been done or not done - because who knows what's occurring behind the scenes or what the plan is - but here, I think it's important for her to be understood not as an American, so to speak, but rather as an international citizen and someone who brings a lot of goodwill to the world. And this incident was a one-off mistaken occurrence that is deserving of mitigation, regardless of what system anyone happens to find themselves in. And I think there's a - there's both legal strategy and a message along those lines that would be very worthwhile to help her rather than to characterize her in some political way.

MARTÍNEZ: That's veteran criminal defense attorney Theodore Simon. Theodore, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.