Buju guilty in drug case
TAMPA, Florida – A federal jury yesterday convicted GrammyAward-winning reggae artist Buju Banton of participating in a drug conspiracy to purchase US$135 000 in cocaine.
Banton, convicted on three charges and acquitted of one, was immediately taken into custody at the federal courthouse in Tampa. No sentencing date has been set.
As the verdict was being read, Banton put his arms around his attorneys. While being led away, someone in the courtroom said: “They did wrong by you,” and he responded: “Send my love, okay?”
This was Banton’s second trial on the drug charges. A jury deadlocked at his first in September, and a judge declared a mistrial.
The trial of the popular Jamaican singer opened February 14, just a day after he won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. He recorded the album, Before The Dawn, prior to his December 2009 arrest, though he worked on post-production from a phone in jail.
The trial had little to do with Banton’s music career, but the image of that Grammy nonetheless hung over the courtroom as defence attorneys portrayed the 37-year-old as an artiste who would not have endangered his career for a modest cocaine score.
Banton, whose given name is Mark Myrie, testified that he was just a boastful talker trying to impress a confidential informant for federal drug agents. Banton said he thought the snitch could help his music career.
“I’m very ashamed of myself,” Banton told jurors at trial. “I know it sounds bad. But I was not part of any drug deal.”
The challenge for prosecutors boiled down to separating Banton from his popular albums and unquestioned fame.
“This is not about Buju Banton, the reggae singer,” prosecutor James Preston said during closing arguments last Thursday. “This is about Mark Myrie, the drug defendant.”
Defence attorney David Markus told jurors in opening statements that his client had more No. 1 hits than reggae icon Bob Marley.
In fact, Marley’s son testified as a witness. It was that same son Stephen Marley who was pivotal in Banton’s release in November when he allowed his house to be used as collateral to secure bail.
Banton’s attorneys said he was entrapped by an overly eager informant, Alexander Johnson.
Banton, his attorneys said, tried to dodge Johnson’s calls after the two met on a flight from Spain to the United States and first talked about setting up a drug deal.
They said Banton played along for a while with no intention of actually buying cocaine and wasn’t even present when other men paid US$135 000 to undercover drug agents for several kilos of cocaine.
But prosecutors said Banton was the organizer of that deal, even if he was sleeping in his South Florida home when it took place.
Preston, the lead prosecutor, presented audio tapes and videos of Banton which they say proved his culpability. In one video, Banton could be seen tasting cocaine at a Sarasota warehouse on December 8, 2009. But two days later, he was not present as the deal was finalized.
Banton’s lawyers said Johnson, the informant, simply wasn’t believable, noting he had earned $3.3 million working with drug agents in the last 14 years, including $50 000 he was paid in Banton’s case. They also said Johnson was a tax cheat who once owed the IRS $200 000 on his income as a snitch.
“He did everything he could to lure me in,” Banton told jurors.
Banton was found guilty of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offence, and using the telephone to facilitate a drug crime. (tampabay.com)