Buju Banton One Step Closer to Freedom

Categories: Crime

Based on New Times' reporting, a federal judge in Tampa last week tossed out one of two convictions that sent reggae giant Buju Banton to prison in 2011. The decision -- which hinged on juror misconduct dug up by the newspaper -- is just the latest plot twist since the Grammy Award winner was rounded up in a government drug sting four years ago. It also opens the way for an appeal.

The news was bittersweet for the 39-year-old star and his camp. "He was disappointed that he wasn't granted a retrial on all counts," Banton's attorney, Imhotep Alkebu-lan, tells New Times. "He's still on the hook for ten years."

Banton -- born Mark Anthony Myrie -- was one of the most important voices to come out of Jamaica since Bob Marley. He was repeatedly nominated for Grammy Awards and gained international infamy as a homophobe after releasing the song "Boom Bye Bye," which was allegedly about murdering gay men. He later renounced hate speech.

His career was cut short December 8, 2009, when an acquaintance delivered him to a Sarasota warehouse hot-wired for government surveillance. Once inside, the singer stood by while two men discussed the sale of cocaine and examined 20 kilos of the narcotic.

Two days later, Banton and two other men were arrested and charged with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense.

As a February 2012 New Times feature, "Buju Behind Bars," showed, Banton was no kingpin. He had fallen under the sway of a sweet-talking government snitch named Alexander "Junior" Johnson. Busted for smuggling 700 kilos of coke into the United States in the 1990s, the Colombian native reinvented himself as confidential informant who set up criminals using a government check as bait. By the time he crossed paths with Buju, he'd banked around $3.5 million from snitching. The recording artist maintains he never intended to make a drug buy.

"Time after time for six months, this informant, who was just trying to make a buck, kept pushing and pushing and wouldn't take no for an answer," says David Oscar Markus, an attorney who previously represented Banton. "That day, Buju thought he was going to a party, and [the snitch] takes him to a warehouse with drugs."

That argument was enough to hang the jury at Banton's first trial in 2010. In a February 2011 retrial, the jury emerged after three days of deliberations to find the singer guilty on three of four charges.

At the subsequent sentencing hearing, the gun charge came in for particular scrutiny. It carried an automatic five-year sentence, but lawyers pointed out Banton has never possessed the Luger semiautomatic handgun that was found on James Mack, the man rounded up in the same sting after driving to Florida from Atlanta with $135,000 for cocaine in his car. In fact, the two men had never met.

Weighing those circumstances, Judge James Moody tossed out the allegation but handed Banton ten years for the drug charges. The government appealed, and a panel of judges in Atlanta stapled five years back onto Banton's time. The higher court cited the Pinkerton liability rule, a provision that makes a criminal responsible for offenses committed by a co-conspirator.

After the February 2012 feature story, New Times published 19 pieces tracking Banton's attempts to appeal his conviction. But it was an October 18, 2012 article -- "Buju Banton Juror May Have Violated Court Orders: Grounds for a Mistrial" -- that proved to be a game changer. The piece featured an exclusive interview with Terri Wright, the former foreperson who admitted to studying details of the proceedings on her computer during the trial -- a clear violation of the rules. "I would get in the car, just write my notes down so I could remember, and I would come home and do the research," she told the paper.
Specifically, Wright said she looked into the Pinkerton rule. It was used by prosecutors to tie Banton to Mack's handgun.

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