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Grammy-winning reggae star Buju Banton convicted in federal drug conspiracy case

TAMPA — Reggae star Buju Banton won a Grammy a week ago for an album whose prophetic anthem is a song in which Banton proclaims he is wrongly convicted though God knows he is innocent.

But on Tuesday a jury appeared to follow the advice of prosecutors who told them to forget the No. 1 reggae hits, nine popular albums and the testimony by reggae legend Bob Marley's son.

If God knows Banton is innocent, jurors begged to differ.

The federal court jury found Banton guilty of drug conspiracy charges after about 11 hours of deliberations, a verdict that may end the career of a man who rose from the slums of Jamaica to fame as one of the world's top reggae artists.

U.S. District Court Judge James Moody ordered Banton jailed immediately. Banton, 37, faces 15 years to life in prison when Moody sentences him later this year. His attorneys said they will appeal.

Banton smiled wistfully and put a reassuring arm around the shoulders of his attorneys sitting on either side of him as the verdict was read by a court clerk.

As marshals surrounded Banton, a supporter called out, "They did wrong by you!"

Banton blew kisses, and told them, "Send my love, okay?"

His legal team followed him to a cell, where they said they found Banton seemingly at peace.

"We are all very upset and emotional," attorney David Markus said. "The only person who seems to be okay is Buju."

In a statement from his cell, Banton told supporters, "Our life is sometimes predestined."

Outside the courthouse, Banton's friends and supporters gathered in tight circles, cell phones unfolded as news of the verdict was relayed to the Caribbean.

"I believe in my heart what God told me, and God told me not guilty," said Carol Taylor, a native of Jamaica who lives in Tampa.

Of the drug charges, she said, "We know that's not Buju."

Jurors found Banton guilty of three charges after the week-long trial: conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense, and using a telephone to commit a drug offense.

Jurors found him innocent of attempted possession with intent to distribute cocaine.

This was Banton's second trial. A jury deadlocked at his first in September, causing a mistrial.

The singer's retrial opened Feb. 14, a day after he won a Grammy for best reggae album. Banton recorded the album, Before the Dawn, prior to his December 2009 arrest, though he worked on post-production from a jail phone.

Banton's troubles began on a flight from Spain to the United States in 2009. Banton had the ill fortune to sit next to a confidential informant who has earned $3.3 million in the last 14 years working for federal agents.

The men began drinking and talking so loudly that flight attendants told them to keep it down.

Prosecutors said Banton, a Miami resident whose given name is Mark Myrie, boasted to the snitch that he was involved in a cocaine ring. They said he talked about wanting to set up a drug deal together.

They presented audio tapes and videos of Banton they say proved his culpability in setting up the purchase of 11 pounds of cocaine for $135,000.

In one video, Banton could be seen tasting cocaine at a Sarasota warehouse on Dec. 8, 2009. But days later, he was not present as the deal was finalized, though prosecutors said he knew it was going down.

"This is not about Buju Banton, the reggae singer," prosecutor James Preston told jurors last week. "This is about Mark Myrie, the drug defendant."

But Banton's Grammy nonetheless hung over the courtroom as defense attorneys portrayed Banton as an artist who would not endanger his career for a modest cocaine score.

Banton testified that he was just a boastful talker trying to impress the informant because the man said he could help Banton's music career.

He said he never intended to buy the drugs and had ignored the informant's persistent calls.

"I'm very ashamed of myself," Banton told jurors last week. "I know it sounds bad. But I was not part of any drug deal."

Banton said, "He did everything he could to lure me in."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Grammy-winning reggae star Buju Banton convicted in federal drug conspiracy case 02/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 10:53pm]

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