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Brittney Griner Found Guilty In Russian Courtroom, Sentenced To Nine Years In Russian Penal Colony; Justice Department Files Charges Against Four Louisville Police Officers In Breonna Taylor Case. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 04, 2022 - 11:00   ET




DANA BASH, CNN Anchor: Hello everyone, I'm Dana Bash. Kate is off today. We are following breaking news out of Russia. We have a verdict in the Brittney Griner trial. Griner has been found guilty of smuggling cannabis oil in her luggage back in February. She plead guilty last month in the -- in the hopes of being granted leniency. Right now, you see that the WNBA star is in the courtroom. It's just outside of Moscow and prosecutors, as we speak, are asking for a sentence of nine and a half years in prison. I want to go straight to CNN's Fred Pleitgen who is live outside the courtroom near Moscow. So Fred, what is the latest? What are we hearing about how that sentencing will go?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, it -- it really is significant information that we're getting Dana. First of all, you're absolutely right. So that the courthouse found Brittney Griner guilty and as we see on our screens right now, the judge is still, sort of, reading out the verdict and what exactly the specifics of this verdict are. But there's already something that's very important that the judge has read in saying that this -- that they have found Brittney Griner guilty with criminal intent. That means that the court believes what the prosecution has said, that they believe that Brittney Griner intentionally took narcotics to the Russian Federation.

Obviously talking about those two vaping cartridges and you'll recall that one of the cases or one of the things that the defense team tried to establish and Brittney Griner tried to establish is that she did not intend to take these vaping cartridges into Russia. That she packed very quickly, very hastily and by accident they might have ended up in her luggage and that's how they were on her when she was stopped here at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on February 17th. Now it seems as though the court, in that case at least, has not followed what the defense wanted. He's saying that this was something that was done intentionally. We are not sure yet about the sentencing.

They've not gotten to the sentencing yet but Brittney Griner has been found guilty. And another little thing that I have for you as well Dana, I was actually able to speak to Brittney Griner's defense lawyers as they walked back into the courtroom a couple of minutes ago and they said that there is a guilty verdict, depending on the sentence, they will go into an appeals process and right now there is a guilty verdict. But again, we're still waiting for the sentencing, but presumably it could be quite a tough sentence because the judge said that they believe that this was done intentionally Dana.

BASH: So interesting that criminal intent is exactly what her attorney's and she were trying to argue was not the case. They -- they are saying that they didn't buy it. I want to bring in CNN's Kylie Atwood at the State Department. So Kylie, based on what Fred was just reporting, what is your sense from your sources where you are at the State Department about how hard it is going to be or not to take the next step? And the next step, everybody expects will be an attempt at a prisoner swap.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well today will have an impact on that next step and that's because when you talk to U.S. officials, the expectation that was any potential prisoner swap wouldn't actually come to fruition until Brittney Griner confessed guilt. So she plead guilty back in July and she expressed that she was sorry that she committed this, though she didn't intend to, today again in the courtroom and also that there would have to be sentencing in this trial. So that's why today will have an impact on the ongoing efforts to try and secure a prisoner swap to get Brittney Griner home. Now the backdrop to all of this, however, is that the Biden Administration hasn't just been sitting on its hands waiting for this day.

They were trying to get the wheels in motion back in June, when they did put an offer on the table with the Russians, offering up Viktor Bout. He's a convicted arms smuggler serving a 25 year prison sentence here in the U.S. for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. The Russians haven't exactly played ball. They put another offer, that counter offer, through some back channels on the table for a Russian who's actually serving time in Germany right now. So basically they haven't been able to have productive conversations to make an agreement about that prisoner swap and that's why today's important because the expectation was that when there's a sentence, it may allow them to move forward in those discussions.

I -- I do think it's important, Dana, though to point out that the judge is saying that she did this deliberately, and that is exactly contradictory to what Brittney Griner has said is the story here. She said she was, in her words, rush packing when she was packing up to go over to Russia to play on this team.


She has just been getting over COVID. She was trying to get all her things together and that's how this cannabis oil accidentally ended up still in her bag. But of course, the judge is making the determination that he believes that it was actually a deliberate act and that could impact the sentence that we're expecting over the next -- the course of the next few minutes or hours here.

BASH: Oh absolutely, good, and I'm glad that you underscored that point. I mentioned earlier but we have to say it over and over again just because this is the -- the verdict, is this is just because of what has been found guilty of criminal intent. It -- it that's -- that's not what she claims. She claims that it was -- she brought the cannabis, the vaping material, over to Russia by accident. All right, Kylie stand by as we wait for this verdict. I want to go now to CNN Contributor Jill Dougherty, former CNN/Moscow Bureau Chief. Jill, so many things to talk to you about. First of all, I just want to mention just the imagery of that we're seeing. And it's so striking for people, we -- we have covered so many trials here in the U.S. and we are used to seeing a defendant in street clothes, in a courtroom and this is Russia. This is not the U.S. This is not a western democracy and so what we see is somebody trying to defend herself while in prison garb behind bars.

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, and that is for Americans and probably for some Europeans that's pretty shocking because a person in a cage. You know, looks really frightening and don't forget, you know, she's extremely tall. So she has to lean over a lot of the time, there's a lot of images here that are, I hear some translation going on. Do we want to go to that?

BASH: I think you can continue. They'll let us know when we -- when we have the sentencing.

DOUGHERTY: All right.

BASH: Thanks though. Because -- because you can speak Russian you can probably understand more than we can. So, if you hear something let us know.

DOUGHERTY: OK. But I -- I was -- what I was trying to say, you know, the optics are really, really, kind of, frightening and then you have the what's called the official, legal case moves forward. So, essentially where we are, we just the got the guilty verdict and with that troubling criminal intent that is not good, criminal intent. And then, part two will be the sentence and you almost have to think if it goes (inaudible) Russian law usually goes, that could be harsh. Because after all, if there was criminal intent and that was found -- that is a bad sign and it could be that the sentence would be, you know, what the prosecutors were asking for which is nine and a half years in a -- in a work colony.

But then you get to the political side, when that's all over it's up to the leaders of both countries to decide what to do and whether or not to have a prisoner swap. I mean, there could be one and then what would it be? Or there could not be one, which would also be a very troubling sign, but the United States obviously wants one very much. This is a big deal in the United States. A lot of public pressure in Russia -- Russia it is not that much of a big deal. This story's been covered, of course, and you know there's not a lot of public pressure in Russia right now Dana. So Putin isn't in as much public pressure or under a lot of time pressure either.

BASH: But what Putin, and Jill if I may, is -- is obviously eager to do is to extract something from the U.S. These are not wonderful times in U.S.-Russian relations. I don't need to tell you or anybody who's not been under a rock for the past, you know, year or so. What do you think the -- the -- the ask is realistically going to be from Putin in order to entertain a prisoner swap to get Brittney Griner back to the U.S.?

DOUGHERTY: You know, originally with the Viktor Bout potential jail, one man, you know, an arms dealer, a very big deal, you know, for Russia. But is it right in Russian eyes to trade one man for two Americans? Because Russians are very big on, you know, equal and parody, tit for tat type of thing. So they might approach this, we're not going to give up one person for two. That's, you know, entirely possible. I -- it's that part of it is, kind of hard, because then you have the situation where Vladimir Putin, right now, as you pointed out is able to make it very uncomfortable for the Biden Administration.


And Putin right now, because of this big thing overhanging everything, which is the war in Ukraine. He doesn't have a lot of ways of making things uncomfortable. Right now, Russia and he are being made uncomfortable with sanctions, criticism, et cetera. So here's Vladimir Putin's chance to, kind of, you know, play hard to get, make it difficult for the Biden Administration and he may want to play that out. You know, he may want to give it some time and think it over and meanwhile, Brittney Griner has to go through this legal process because they are going to appeal.

BASH: Yes. I want to bring in CNN's Sports Analyst Christine Brennan. Christine, as you watch this, as you look at this image of Brittney Griner behind bars there waiting to hear, not the verdict. We know again she is -- has been found guilty but the sentencing. I wonder what your thoughts are and -- and as you answer that I just want to, sort of, inject one thing here which is that the reason Brittney Griner and other women are in Russia playing basketball is because they don't get paid anywhere near what the men get paid in the U.S. and that's just what they do.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: Exactly Dana, Brittney Griner salary, the top salary in the WNBA is about $230,000-$240,000 with bonuses, you can get it up another couple $100,000. The top salary in the NBA is over $40 million. So hundreds of thousands for the women and $40 million is obviously the -- the high range for the NBA, for the men. So yes, they go overseas, they play, it's not just Russia. It's China. It's Spain. It's Italy. It's Turkey and this is where they can supplement their salaries and that's what Brittney Griner was doing. Obviously she was flying into Russia at an incredibly fraught time, a week before Putin unleashed his horrors on Ukraine, nonetheless she did that and here she is, and I think you're right. To kind of set the -- the -- the scene again Dana, to remind everyone Brittney Griner is six foot nine. There she sits, six foot nine in that cage.

She's a two time Olympic gold medalist. She has represented the nation beautifully, winning two gold medals with the U.S. Women's Basketball team, the most -- most dominant team in all of sports internationally, worldwide, U.S. Women's Basketball. She's one of the stars and she has won two gold medals for the United States, as well as also playing overseas for the U.S. Representing the country in other ways, multiple time WNBA All-Star, NCA Champion at Baylor, on and on it goes. One of our true sports heroes and it's really hard to look at this and see that person in that cage.

BASH: So well said, seven time All-Star, you can fact check me on that Christine. But seven time All-Star is what we have, it's pretty amazing in addition to as you said, two time Olympic Gold Medalist. Stand-by everybody. Again, we are waiting for the sentencing in this trial. More breaking news into CNN though charges in the case of Breonna Taylor, we're going to bring that to you next.



BASH: Attorney General Merrick Garland just announced new charges against four Louisville Police Officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor.


MERRICK GARLAND, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: Earlier today, I spoke with the family of Breonna Taylor. This morning, they were informed that the Justice Department has charged four current and former Louisville Metro Police Department Officers with Federal crimes related to Ms. Taylor's death. Those alleged crimes include civil rights offenses, unlawful conspiracies, unconstitutional use of force and obstruction offenses. The four defendants were charged through two separate indictments and one information.


BASH: CNN's Jessica Schneider is here in Washington with the latest. Jessica.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This investigation into Breonna Taylor's death, in terms of the Federal civil rights component, this has been ongoing for a very long time here. There's a large team of investigators and, in fact, Breonna Taylor's mother met with the Justice Department just a few months ago in March pressing them to file charges against these officers. And in fact, as you heard from the attorney general today, four officers from the Louisville Police Department have, in fact, been charge. What's interesting is that these are different officers who've been -- those who were on the scene that night of that fatal shooting. There's one officer who is was on the scene that night.

He has been charged for unconstitutional excessive force for firing 10 shots into the side of the building, into the side window that -- that went into Breonna Taylor's apartment and other neighbors. But in addition to that one officer, three officers who were involved in crafting the search warrant for Breonna Taylor's home have been charged in this. They've been charged with conspiracy, knowingly falsifying a warrant here and the premise is they relied on false information that they knew was false to get a search warrant for Breonna Taylor's home. His was an ongoing investigation into narcotics trafficking and they

-- the attorney general here says that these officers knew that some of the information they put into the search warrant for Breonna Taylor's home was false. Notably that she -- her house who received packages for the target in this investigation, and that information was actually false.


So the basis of this search warrant for Breonna Taylor's home was false here and that's why three of the officers involved in that warrant, are now being charged. So really Dana, this has been a months long investigation. Now resulting in four Federal charges -- four officers being charged Federally with various constitutional violations. This is something that Breonna Taylor's family has been pressing for here. You know, this is really the first big set of charges for these officers. One officer was charged with state charges. He was ultimately acquitted but this is something that the family has been pressing for and now charges on the Federal level will move forward against these four officers in the death of Breonna Taylor. Dana.

BASH: Jessica, thank you so much for breaking that down. I want to bring in Former U.S. Attorney Michael Moore and as somebody who has been working with the Feds, you've been on the Federal level pressing charges, obviously on various cases. That was your job as U.S. attorney, put this in perspective.

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, I'm -- I'm glad to be with you this morning and it's obviously good news, I think, for the Taylor family and -- and a long time coming. It -- it reminds me of, sort of, the ineptness of what went on with the state investigation. This is information that could have been uncovered early. That if they'd verified the information, could have just state search warrant but we have the -- the Department of Justice come in and charge a conspiracy case or a -- I believe, I guess, lying on the front end about the case and perhaps coming up later.

It's -- it's a big deal and it means prison time if convicted for these -- for these officers. But unfortunately, I think it's more a common occurrence maybe than we all want to admit, having things putting in a search warrant that has not be verified. It's information that maybe somebody well they heard from somebody else, didn't corroborate with the witness. That's -- that's always a concern and -- and in this case, you know, leading to tragic -- tragic consequences. So, I'm -- I'm proud to see the investigation has moved forward to this state. Again, I wish that they had done a more thorough job of checking the search warrants (inaudible). It's often times the cover- up in cases in the and sort of the lying in the preparation, it catches people when they do wrong, and it seems to have rung true again today.

BASH: And -- and -- and as Jessica was saying, only one officer on the state level, local level has been charged with anything relating to Breonna Taylor's killing who was actually there.

MOORE: Right.

BASH: Is this the end of the road for the Federal investigation or could they go further and focus more on the officers who were actually there?

MOORE: I think they'll probably go further. Again, this has been breaking as we've been coming on air, so I haven't seen the documents but it sounds to me like they've got some room to basically flip cooperators, to get witnesses to talk. Especially if they have separate accusation than the indictment, you know, that's -- that's sometimes an indication that they intend to have a cooperator in -- in a case. I think they'll probably use these people, say look you're going to prison. You can tell us what went on. You can talk about statements made after the fact. You may have information related to the, sort of, the debrief after the raid.

We need to hear that as it relates to more specific civil rights cases as we think about civil rights claims to the use of the excessive force of the case. I -- I don't know of anybody with a -- in their right mind, could have looked at this case and not thought that something wrong happened. And that's -- that's part of (inaudible) with the state, I don't know how you -- how you can even have a cursory or a first grade review of the facts and -- and not be troubled by what you see. And so, my guess is they'll go a little deeper.

BASH: And -- and -- in these times, when we're talking about, you know, the legal ramifications of the killing, we should remember the victim here and her name is Breonna Taylor. And one of the things that has been changed on a local level in Louisville is what's known as Breonna's Law, it was passed in June of 2020 which bans the kind of warrant that these officers got and maybe more importantly requires officers to wear body cameras which was not done in this case.

MOORE: That's -- that's right. I think you're 100 percent right. We ought to say Breonna's name in -- in every chance. We end up talking about charges and officers and investigations. We don't remember the person who paid, sort of, the ultimate price for some of the sloppiest law enforcement work that -- that we've seen in a warrant of this type in -- in a -- in a long time. But the body cameras are -- it's good as the -- the officers who will turn them on and activate them and not lose them.


And while I applaud any effort to keep people accountable, I'm -- I'm mindful that we're talking about it in another case or another investigation of big import with the Department of Justice and Congress, the loss of messages and how things are deleted and text messages are gone, and -- and that type of thing. And so, what you don't want to see is body cameras who's video is ultimately erased or sudden -- or mistakenly misplaced and -- and that type of thing. So anything we can do to keep people safe and keep people accountable, I -- I applaud and -- and again, let me say. We have a lot of great, great law enforcement officers. This ought not be a black-eye on all of them. BASH: Michael. Michael. I'm getting -- I'm going to have to cut you

off because we have -- we have a sentencing announcement in Russia. A judge announcing Brittney Griner's sentencing. Moments ago, I want to go straight to Fred Pleitgen. Fred, tell us what happened.

PLEITGEN: Hi Dana. It's a pretty harsh sentence. It's a very harsh sentence. Actually the judge has handed down, the judge has said -- has obviously said that Brittney Griner is considered to be guilty for criminally trying to bring narcotics into the Russian Federation and she's been sentenced to nine years of jail time and one million rubles. That's around $16,400 U.S. dollars in-- in a fine as well, but of course, nine years, an extremely long period of time. That nine years in a penal colony. They did say there was mitigating circumstances like for the -- the fact that she had pleaded guilty. That she had admitted her guilt and -- and other things as well. Obviously, she was ultimately, you know, a high class individual and someone who was very important to the Russian Federation.

Nevertheless, an extremely harsh sentence and I want to read to you just a little bit, because also the lawyers for Brittney Griner, they've already voiced their disappointment. They put out a statement saying we are disappointed by the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality. The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense and most importantly the guilty plea. So therefore, the defense obviously saying they are extremely disappointed by this verdict. No doubt, Brittney Griner will be as well. Again, nine years in a penal colony, one of the things however that the judge has told me Dana as they walked back in the courtroom before this last session started is they said that if a verdict like this came down, they were doing to go into an appeals process.

And of course, at the same time, of course we as we tell our viewers, that there are those efforts by the United States to try and get a prisoner exchange for Brittney Griner as well. But this certainly an extremely tough verdict, we had been talking about the fact before that Russian courts are known to be extremely tough. That the conviction rate is very high and certainly the sentence is very high as well, but here you have nine years for Brittney Griner after being convicted of taking two vaping cartridges, or trying to take them into the Russian Federation with -- with the court established to be .7 of a gram in total between those two cartridges and even that was obviously called into question by the defense. But nine years, very tough sentence for Brittney Griner, Dana.

BASH: It -- it certainly is and Fred stand-by. I want to our viewers to see the moment when the judge actually read the sentence, the maximum sentence. The one the prosecutors asked for nine years in a penal colony.


TRANSLATOR: Final verdict is nine years of imprisonment of the $9 million rubles penalty in the penal colony and she will -- she will serve her term from the date of the announcement of this verdict. And time when she was behind bars from the 18th of February 2022 will be included in the overall term.


BASH: Jill Dougherty, Former CNN/Moscow Bureau Chief is back with us. Just watching that is, you know, it's -- it's heart wrenching and -- and thinking about all of the -- the factors in play here. Not the least of which is she's 31 years old. She is somebody who is quite literally at the top of her game in the WNBA and now she is, according to that translation immediately going to go to a penal colony. I -- I know, we're going to talk in a moment about the potential for a prison swap but since she's going right now, can you explain to our viewers here, around the world, what does that mean? What does a Russian penal colony look like and entail?

DOUGHERTY: You know, it depends on which one they -- there-- there will be work to be done. Now it could be harsh work, you know, kind of labor or it could be making things, kind of like, you know, sewing uniforms and things like that. We'll have to see exactly where she will be going. And this is really, really sobering but this is, kind of, what was expected because of the way that the Russian law is set up and the fact that very few people are ever exonerated.