President Joe Biden announced Thursday that Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner has been freed from Russian imprisonment after spending 294 days behind bars on trumped-up drug charges. The Biden administration secured her freedom by offering a one-for-one prisoner exchange in which Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout would be freed from prison in the U.S.
Griner's Russian odyssey is now thankfully over, but how did she get here? The timeline below plots the dark maze that Griner and her wife, Cherelle, had to travel through to get to this celebratory day.
While traveling to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, the team she has played for during the WNBA offseason since 2014, Griner is detained going through security at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow after officials find vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. However, Russia doesn't announce for several weeks that it has detained Griner.
Russian president Vladimir Putin orders his troops to invade Ukraine, complicating Griner's return before the vast majority of people even know she has been detained.
The world finally learns that Griner has been detained in a Russian prison since Feb. 17. Russia's drug laws are harsh and stringent, and there are no exceptions for marijuana, even though Griner has been legally using medical marijuana for pain in the United States. The next day, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he and the Biden administration will do whatever they can to help get Griner home.
Griner's detention is extended by three months at the request of prosecutors, who want more time to investigate. The U.S. government starts ratcheting up the pressure on Russia, announcing in a statement to ESPN that they've been denied access to Griner and haven't spoken to her since her arrest.
Officials from the U.S. consulate meet in person with Griner and say they find her to be in "good condition," all things considered.
WNBA players, who had been advised by the State Department to stay mostly quiet about Griner so as to not hurt her case, begin to break their silence about the detention of their teammate. Breanna Stewart addresses BG's detention, explaining that Griner was in Russia because they pay women basketball players a lot more than they make playing in the WNBA and that many WNBA players take advantage of high-paying opportunities in Russia.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert comments on Griner before the WNBA draft.
"We know she’s safe, but we want to get her home," Engelbert says. "So it’s just a very complex situation right now, and we’re following the advice. There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not talking to someone that has views on what we’re doing and how we’re moving forward."
WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike gives an interview about Griner the next day on "Good Morning America."
"We're really most concerned about her health and safety," Ogwumike says. "Especially her mental health. We're hearing that ... she's OK. But we want her home."
The U.S. government classifies Griner as "wrongfully detained." On the same day, Engelbert announces that the WNBA will honor BG all season with a floor decal on every court.
The Russian government extends Griner's detention by a month. Several days later, NBA commissioner Adam Silver says the NBA is working with the WNBA to help bring Griner home. A report surfaces that Russia wants arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death," released in any Griner-related prisoner exchange.
The U.S. Embassy reveals that Russia has been denying access to Griner, refusing to grant U.S. officials more than sporadic visits. State Department representative Ned Price says in a statement that Russia must allow the U.S. "consistent and timely access" to Griner and all U.S. prisoners, which is guaranteed under the Vienna Convention.
Griner's wife, Cherelle, gives her first televised interview since BG was detained. She reveals that she hasn't spoken to Brittney since Feb. 17, the day she was arrested, and calls on President Biden to get her home.
"You say she's top priority, but I want to see it," Cherelle says on "Good Morning America."
Just a few days after Griner's pre-trial detention was extended yet again, she is supposed to call Cherelle for their fourth wedding anniversary. The call is supposed to be patched through to Cherelle from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but calls to the Embassy go unanswered because the desk is not staffed on Saturdays. Cherelle and Brittney do not get to talk on their anniversary, marking four months since the pair had spoken to each other. Cherelle says the failure to make sure someone was there to answer a vital and prescheduled phone call gives her "zero trust" in the government to bring her wife home safely.
Griner sends a handwritten letter to President Biden, saying she's "terrified" that she could be imprisoned in Russia "forever." She asks him not to forget about her and the other detainees and discusses how Independence Day has taken on a new meaning for her.
"It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year," Griner writes.
The next day, Cherelle publicly says she has not heard from President Biden, calling it "very disheartening."
President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris call Cherelle the day after she publicly commented that she had not heard from the president since Griner had been detained. Cherelle says she is "grateful" to hear from them.
Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russian court. Though she admits to bringing the hashish oil cartridge with her into the country, she says it was an accident, and she didn't intend to break the law. Despite Griner's admission of guilt, the trial continues (as is required under Russian law). She faces up to 10 years in prison. Since most Russian trials end in convictions, the guilty plea is seen as a strategic attempt to reduce prison time.
The absent Griner is the true star of the WNBA All-Star Game. Her WNBA sisters honor her throughout the night, with every player wearing a No. 42 jersey in the second half of the game.
Griner testifies in court, emphasizing that at no point did she intend to break Russian law.
“With them being accidentally in my bag, I take responsibility,” Griner told the court, “but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle anything into Russia.”
On the same day, news breaks that the U.S. government has made a "substantial proposal" to Russia to secure the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen who has been imprisoned on espionage charges for several years.
Griner is found guilty. Judge Anna Sotnikova finds that Griner intentionally broke the law and sentences her to nine years in prison, just one year short of the maximum.
Griner's lawyers officially appeal her guilty verdict.
NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman says he "got permission" to go to Russia and help secure Griner's release, though it's unclear from whom he got such permission or how he could help. The next day, an anonymous White House official says the Biden administration didn't give Rodman permission to do anything, and they actually want him to do nothing, lest he harm the official negotiations taking place. Rodman never mentions any of this again.
Cherelle continues her fight to bring her wife home. She appears on "Good Morning America" and says Griner is at her "absolute weakest moment in life right now."
On Griner's 32nd birthday, the NBA champion Golden State Warriors open the 2022-23 regular season against the Los Angeles Lakers. During the ring ceremony, megastar Steph Curry calls for Griner's freedom.
"Brittney Griner's birthday is today," Curry says. "She's 32 years old. We want to continue to let her name be known, and we pray — it's been 243 days since she's been wrongfully incarcerated in Russia — we hope that she comes home soon and that everybody's doing their part to bring her home."
Griner's appeal is denied. Her sentence remains at nine years.
Griner's Russian lawyers say she's in the process of being transferred to a penal colony, where conditions are squalid and prisoners are abused and often forced to work. Penal colony transfers often take weeks or months once a final verdict is reached, so Griner's lawyers say they are surprised it happened so quickly. At that point, they have no knowledge of Griner's location, as the physical transfer process can take up to two weeks.
"Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment," her lawyers says in a statement.
After 294 days, President Biden announces a one-for-one prisoner swap with Russia, in which the U.S. released arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Russia releasing Griner. Biden says he has spoken to Griner, who is already on her way home.