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Russian Court Sentences Brittney Griner To 9 Years In Prison; Legal Team For Alex Jones Asks For Mistrial; Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired August 04, 2022 - 11:30   ET



JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Expected because of the way that the Russian law is set up, and the fact that very few people are ever exonerated. And the fact that they said, you know, the guilty verdict was with criminal intent. So the judge is really you know pushing minor -- like six months off because of a few extenuating circumstances but this is really, really tough.

And now, you know, there are two possibilities. Obviously, they're going to appeal this, but it's really now up to Vladimir Putin because the United States has made it very clear that it wants Brittney Griner out. And President Biden has made that very clear by the actions that he's taken in the State Department. So now, what's happening behind the scenes? Will there be a deal?

You know, I have to -- Dana, as I'm looking at this, I'm struck by how really dramatic this is. Because you know, usually, when things like this happen, and they're not that common, but if there's an exchange, it's usually all agreed to behind the scenes. And sometimes, you know, the world doesn't even know that somebody's arrested, and especially in the spy world, and then there's an exchange and then it happens. And the dramatic moment might be, you know, two prisoners walking across a bridge, as happened you know, back in the old Soviet days.

Here, we're watching Brittney Griner in that cage, in a prison getting that sentence. So it's really, it's extraordinary and it's disturbing because you have that human drama taking place. And then you have the big picture of, you know, the relations between Russia and the United States, which right now are abysmal. And then overriding that, you have this war going on in Ukraine. It is quite extraordinary.

DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: And of course, Jill, all of those things are extraordinarily connected, right? I mean, all those things have to do with the other. And I'm going to bring in Kylie Atwood. I mean, Jill was talking about the fact that this is so visual, so public, and this may be the way they do things in Russia, but it certainly is beneficial politically in the mind of Vladimir Putin to show the world that they have a -- an American sports figure who has won two gold medals, who has -- is a seven-time All-Star, plays for the Phoenix Mercury behind bars in Russia.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, and not only behind bars but being sent to this penal colony now. That is hugely significant here. Dana, we had been discussing that her sentencing could be up to 10 years in prison. This sentence of nine years in prison is quite remarkable. And I think we obviously will wait to hear from her family and her friends who have been pushing the Biden administration to do everything they can to secure her release and rest assured that that pushing in those calls are only going to intensify now that we have this sentence in hand.

I do think it's important to note that administration officials are saying that when it comes to a potential prisoner swap to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan and other Americans who's wrongfully detained in the country, to get them release, that the ball is in Russia's court now. They are essentially acknowledging quietly here that it is Russia who is going to determine if they're going to accept a deal that the Biden administration has put on the table. The Secretary of State publicly asked for the Russians to accept that deal but the Russian foreign minister came back, essentially and said, we want those negotiations to be quiet, telling the Biden administration to keep those to the quiet channels.

But, Dana, I do want to note that President Biden has just put out a statement and I think you guys are probably getting that. But I do want to read that to you because it's significant that the President of the United States has felt a need to put out a statement in the moments following this nine-year sentence for Brittney Griner. And I'll just read that to you -- to you.

President Biden saying today that American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence. That is one more reminder of what the world already knew. Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney Griner, it's unacceptable, and I'll call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.

And, of course, we'll be waiting to watch how those negotiations to get her home ultimately follow after today's sentence.

BASH: Kylie, standby I want to actually go to the White House. CNN's Arlette Saenz is there right now. Kylie read the statement, Arlette, what does it tell you?


What are you hearing from your sources in the building there behind you about why it was so important for the President of the United States to release that statement minutes after the sentencing was announced?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's -- yes, Dana, it's very clear that President Biden is trying to stake out his position immediately to show that the administration is trying to do whatever they can to try to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan back to the United States. You have seen the president released this statement detailing that they are working tirelessly to try to ensure that they are returned back to their families. And this comes just almost a month after the president directly spoke

with Brittney Griner's wife, Cherelle, as well as the family of Paul Whelan trying to offer them assurances that they are working to get their loved ones home to the United States. And remember, at the beginning of July, the president actually received a letter directly from Brittney Griner where she expressed fear over her detainment in Russia. She had written in that letter directly to the president. "I'm terrified I might be here forever."

So what you have seen from the Biden administration, over the course of the past few weeks, is trying to show that they are placing utmost priority and getting these Americans home. That is why they had offered this proposal to Russia for a possible prisoner swap. But now the focus will be on what those negotiations might look like. Of course, they have said that that counter offer that Russia had previously proposed that that was simply not a serious counter offer. And now the administration will be working to see what next steps they can try to take to try to get Brittney Griner as well as Paul Whelan home after they've been so wrongfully detained in Russia.

BASH: Arlette, we're going to go to Brittney Griner's lawyers right now speaking outside the courthouse.


ELIZABETH ROOD, DEPUTY CHIEF OF MISSION, U.S. EMBASSY IN MOSCOW: Was sentenced to 9 -- (AUDIO GAP) for nothing more than an intentional oversight. This is a miscarriage of justice. The U.S. Department of State has determined that Ms. Griner has been wrongfully detained, nothing in today's decision changes that humiliation. Together with consular officers from the U.S. Embassy here in Moscow, I attended every session of Ms. Griner's trial.

We remain in frequent contact with Miss Griner and with her legal team. Secretary of State Blinken, President Biden's -- President Biden's Natural Security team, and the entire American government remain committed to bringing Miss Griner home safely to her family, friends, and loved ones. And I, as charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy, in Moscow will also do my best to bring her home safely. I will continue to do everything to care for the safety and well-being of Miss Griner and of all U.S. citizens detained in the Russian Federation. We have no higher priority. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is this still possible to change the course?

ROOD: I have no further comments on that.



BASH: That was Elizabeth Rood, as you heard her say herself, the charge d'affaires for the U.S. in Moscow. Jill Dougherty, I want to bring you back in. She said it was a miscarriage of justice, and said that President Biden and the Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and the entire American government remain focused on trying to get her back, get Brittney Griner out of the penal colony that she's apparently going to be headed to momentarily and back to the U.S.

I want to pick up on something that you mentioned earlier, which is obviously a very complicating factor for the U.S. in these negotiations that they're going to try to push in earnest now, which is Kylie mentioned the ball is in Russia's court. And there is a lot that Vladimir Putin wants right now when it comes to things to extract from the U.S. How likely is it that he will move these negotiations outside of the realm of just a prisoner swap and try to get the U.S. to back down on sanctions, on giving money and arms to Ukraine, and on, and on, and on? I mean, there are a lot of -- a lot of things --


BASH: -- To use a very unsophisticated term, that Russia wants.

DOUGHERTY: I don't think that that is going to happen.

BASH: Yes.

DOUGHERTY: I mean, they are connected, that is, you know, that's the context. But for the United States to stop giving arms to Ukraine, or stop the sanctions, it's not going to happen. Then the U.S. accepted --

BASH: It's not going to happen, but do you think that -- totally, totally separate, but do you think Putin will push it anyway?

DOUGHERTY: Well, you know, he's kind of, let's say, domestically perhaps or in the relationship with the United States.


Sending a message and pushing things and getting some of what he wants, which is to put the United States -- to get back at the United States for what the United States is doing to Russia, to show that the United States can't -- this is all enclosed, but can't push Russia around, that they have their own legal system. And you know, you can't just because you have laws about drugs that aren't that serious, we don't because we are in Russia, we have, you know, our traditional values, etcetera. I mean, he's scoring -- I would tend to think he's -- thinks he's probably scoring his own points.

Now, what -- is that enough for him? And how long will he drag this out? I think that's would be worrying to me because he -- as this goes on, it's really, really painful. It would be very painful to see Brittney Griner go off to a penal colony, and not know whether there's really a deal. So the answer to that, I think, really is only in Putin's you know mind and heart of how far he wants to push this.

But you know, I think he realizes some of the reality in this. I don't think Ukraine is going to change. But, you know, he may be satisfied with just a period of really, you know, making it difficult for the Biden administration, dragging this out, and playing hard to get until the end.

BASH: Fred Pleitgen, I want to go back to you on the ground in Moscow. You've been covering this since February when this happened. What are your thoughts and what are you hearing from sources there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, first of all, I think the initial thought is that Brittney Griner's defense team is obviously extremely disappointed by the outcome of this trial. And you could hear that in the original statement that she -- that they put out where they said that they believed that none of the arguments that they put forward were really taken into account by the court. And you know, as -- you're absolutely right, we have been covering what's been going on with Brittney Griner, basically, since it was announced that she had been detained since it was announced by the U.S. that they believe that she is wrongfully detained.

And throughout that process, you could see the defense buildup a strategy where they were trying to get a more lenient verdict. And they, throughout that process, kept telling me that they believe that they were managing to do that, as well as possible. She had pleaded guilty. She had said that it was a mistake. She had shown respect for the Russian courts.

They brought in character witnesses to say how important Brittney Griner is, not just internationally to basketball, but specifically to the town of Yekaterinburg, where she's been playing for more than six years. They brought in the manager of the team in Yekaterinburg, and players from Yekaterinburg to testify to the fact that Brittney Griner is a high-character individual, someone who was very good for the team, and someone who wants to forward basketball in Russia and make it more popular.

So -- and then on top of that, they also, you know, tried to call into question some of the forensics that were done as well saying that some of the measurements that were taken on those cartridges might not have been up to the scientific standards that would be necessary to convict someone in a court of law. So they had believed that they were on a good track, but they always caveated that by saying you have to keep in mind that in a Russian court, sometimes all that gets cast aside and you get a really tough verdict.

BASH: Yes.

PLEITGEN: And that's clearly what they believe has happened right now. And that's also why they are saying that they are going to go into revision. You can see behind me already, by the way, press lining up there. We do expect that the lawyers are going to come out in just a couple of minutes, maybe a couple of seconds. They're probably still with Brittney Griner there inside the courthouse right now, Dana.

BASH: And, Fred, since you have been in touch with the defense for all these months, let's just get real. How much of this is because she is a six-foot-nine, black, lesbian American?

PLEITGEN: Well, I think that the last part, especially being an American is obviously one of the big issues and certainly something that may have led to a tougher verdict here. Of course -- we, of course, always have to say that, you know, especially someone who is lesbian or gay here in Russia has a really, really tough time. Whether or not that makes a big difference in a court of law is something that's up for debate, but it's certainly something where if you look, for instance, at Russian media, that is something that is not looked very positively upon here, in a lot of public society, and certainly in Russian state-run media.

Whether or not that played a role is really difficult to say. But, you know, that defense team definitely understood that this was an uphill battle, that this was very difficult for them, and that the odds were definitely stacked against Brittney Griner, maybe for the reasons that you just mentioned, but maybe for sorts -- all sorts of other reasons as well. It was definitely going to be difficult for them.

And I still do believe, judging from the first statement that I saw from the legal defense team, and having -- had conversations with them beforehand, they will be exceptionally disappointed in the verdict that we just heard. Because if you look at the details of the verdict, you look at the nine years that she got, essentially what the court did is they completely followed what the prosecution wanted.


The prosecution asked for nine and a half years. Brittney Griner has already been in detention since February 17. She has been in detention for about five months. And then they put nine years on top of that, that she's going to have to stay in a penal colony if there's not some other resolution on a political scale or if they go into revision and have a success, which of course, would be against all the odds as well.

BASH: So --

PLEITGEN: So the defense is certainly extremely disappointed, Dana.

BASH: So, Fred, you've been talking about the defense. We expect to hear from the defense any minute now. We're going to take a quick break. Don't go anywhere. We will be watching for that. Stay with us.



BASH: We are monitoring events in Moscow, waiting to see if the defense attorneys for Brittney Griner come out. While we do, we're monitoring some big developments in the Alex Jones defamation trial. His legal team is asking for a mistrial. A Texas jury is deliberating right now, they are deciding if the Infowars host must pay $150 million to the parents of Sandy Hook School victim shooting -- excuse me a school shooting victim, six-year-old Jesse Lewis for "reckless lies" Joe -- Jones told about that massacre. Now, Jones admitted in court that the shooting was not a hoax.

CNN's Drew Griffin has been following the trial and joins us now. So, Drew, deliberations come after a shocking day in court on Wednesday. What can you tell us about that, but most recently, the fact that Jones is requesting a mistrial? DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, the -- it all stems out of this subplot that just popped up yesterday in closing arguments or actually the closing cross-examination when the plaintiffs' attorneys, those two parents' attorneys, Mark Bankston, hit Jones over the head with the fact that Jones's own attorney apparently inadvertently leaked Jones's text messages to the attorney. That was something that Jones had been saying all through this process that he did not have. So Jones was caught in a lie. But then we learned today, Dana, that the January 6 committee has asked for those text messages.

Now, it's because of the disclosure of those text messages that Jones's attorney asked for the mistrial, which, by the way, was denied. But we're still trying to deal with this subplot, which is the January 6 committee, is suddenly very interested in this defamation trial that's happening in Austin, Texas. And that's because the plaintiff -- the defendant in this case, which is Alex Jones, was intimately involved on January 6, as you know.

He was involved with Stop the Steal, he pushed the lie of the elections, he got his viewers to the Capitol, he actually was at the Capitol, he led a march to the Capitol, and he is a very big supporter and friend, might quite frankly, have Oath Keeper Stewart Rhodes. So it's interesting to see and very logical to see what the January 6 committee would want those text messages. The question is now, will they get them? The judge is trying to decide what to do because obviously this just came out of the clear blue sky yesterday and was dropped on this judge's lap right in Austin, Texas.

BASH: It sure was. And, Drew, you mentioned the January 6 subplot. First of all, there are a lot of subplots going on here. You've done some excellent reporting. You have a special that's going to be on tomorrow night. What do you think the January 6 committee can get out of the newly revealed batch of text messages that could add to their investigation based on your reporting?

GRIFFIN: Well, Alex Jones, based on our reporting, and based on Alex Jones's bragging quite frankly, said he was very much involved in financing or getting the financing for Donald Trump's rally on the Ellipse that day. He was also very instrumental in promoting the idea of a January 6 gathering in Washington. He was also -- Dana, basically, his show, Infowars, is where Stewart Rhodes and Oath Keepers you could say got his -- got its start. And we know that some 20 people connected involved are following Alex Jones were all arrested on that day as part of the January 6 insurrection.

So I think what the January 6 committee would be interested in looking at is what they're looking at with all of these people, where and if there was any kind of collusion, planning, plotting, anything that would illustrate that there was some advanced planning for what took place at the Capitol on January 6. And if it hasn't linked to other groups, other people, other insurrection groups that are now charged, like Stewart Rhodes, who's charged with some fairly serious charges.

[11:55:02] So I think that's the kind of connections they'll be looking for. The one caveat is we don't really know the parameters of where -- the timeline of where these text messages were. Jones's attorney said they were from late 2019 to early 2020. That could be somewhat limiting if it's true.

BASH: Drew Griffin, thank you for that reporting. Thank you for joining us on a very, very busy morning here at CNN. I mentioned that we are waiting for Brittney Griner's attorneys to come to speak outside the courthouse in Moscow. We will bring that to here at CNN when that happens. Don't go away. "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts after a break