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Journalism Showcase: T.J. Quinn Reports On The Dealmaking That Led To Brittney Griner’s Release From Russia investigative reporter's story explores the U.S.-Russia prisoner swap involving the WNBA star in December 2022; Quinn explains the storytelling challenges

Dec. 8, 2023 marked the first anniversary of WNBA star Brittney Griner’s (42) release from Russian custody. Griner returned to play for the Phoenix Mercury this past season. (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)

For more than a year, ESPN investigative reporter T.J. Quinn covered the story of the imprisonment in Russia and subsequent release of WNBA star Brittney Griner. December 8, 2023, marked the one-year anniversary of when Griner was exchanged in Abu Dhabi for the Russian “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout.

Today, Quinn’s reporting for was published — a detailed look at the inside story of diplomatic and legal maneuverings in the U.S. and in Russia that led to the prisoner swap. Griner had been detained in Russia after she was arrested in February 2022 on drug charges. Griner was convicted and was serving a nine-year prison sentence before the U.S. government negotiated the exchange.

During his investigation, Quinn interviewed dozens of people from the U.S. government, Griner’s teammates in both the WNBA and Russia, numerous sources in Russia, and more, including a widely-viewed interview with Bout.

Quinn discussed the process with Front Row:

When you look back on your reporting on the Griner case, what is one moment that stands out to you?
The moment Viktor Bout responded to our request to talk. I had written to him in prison but never heard back, and after he was released I figured it was worth another shot. It turned out that he watched a lot of ESPN during his years at the federal prison in Marion, Ill., so he was familiar with our coverage.

Obviously, there are lots of challenges along the way in reporting this, including developing sources inside Russia. Where does this project rank in your career list of most challenging?
Every story has its unique challenges, but with this story, the fact that most of it took place in Russia made it difficult to confirm a lot of things. I couldn’t check with Griner herself because she’s working on a memoir and declined to be interviewed. Her Russian lawyers were incredibly cooperative, but everything they told me about Griner’s experiences there had to be checked with people around Griner.

Other than Griner herself, who are some people you wish you could have gotten to talk with you?
Her wife, Cherelle, who was a driving force behind the campaign in the United States. I’d loved to have spoken with the Russian justice officials and prison guards who dealt with her. Every report I got was that she made friends everywhere she went, and I’d love to have heard their experiences. I also very much wanted to speak with Russian government officials, but we got nowhere with that.

ESPN reporter T.J. Quinn interviews Russian “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout, who was exchanged for Brittney Griner. (ESPN)
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