TAMPA — A federal judge threw out a 2011 gun conviction Wednesday against reggae star Buju Banton and told the government to bring a criminal contempt charge against a juror who helped send him to prison.
Banton must continue to serve a 10-year sentence for helping set up a deal to buy and sell 11 pounds of cocaine, but, for now, he does not face an additional five years for a participant's carrying of an illegal gun.
For jury foreman Terri Wright, the troubles are just starting. She could face a fine and up to six months in prison if found guilty of contempt.
U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. concluded that Wright did independent research during Banton's February 2011 trial and then discussed her findings with other jurors, behavior that came to light after she gave a newspaper interview in October 2012.
When accused of misconduct, Wright gave the court the incorrect computer hard drive for a forensic examination, Moody decided, after hearing the facts. The judge's finding contradicted Wright's assertion, under oath, that it was the correct hard drive.
But computer forensics expert Larry Daniel testified that the drive came from a desktop computer that sat idle from May 2010 to June 2011, a time frame that included the trial and its aftermath. The expert found no Internet history during that 13-month span, nor any evidence that the hard drive had been altered.
Yet, on various occasions, Wright has admitted to researching Banton and the law.
All that has changed is the timing: In October, she told a South Florida journalist in a recorded interview that she did research during the trial. In December, she told the court that she did her research after the trial.
Chokwe Lumumba, one of Banton's attorneys, pushed her again Wednesday to pin down a time frame. She pushed back, telling him it's been two years and she doesn't recall.
Moody said he was "very troubled" by the matter.
He found cause to believe Wright researched a legal theory called the Pinkerton rule, which was discussed during jury instructions and may have been a topic of confusion among jurors.
Here's how it applied: If Banton was found to be part of the drug conspiracy, the Pinkerton rule allowed jurors to also hold him liable for a gun carried by conspirator James Mack. That's an automatic five-year sentence bump, because it's a separate federal crime to carry a firearm during a drug-trafficking offense.
Moody said it is difficult to explore the impact that Wright's input might have had on deliberations, lacking a hard drive that reflects Internet use.
But because the gun verdict depended on the Pinkerton rule, he set the verdict aside and left it to the government to decide whether to retry Banton on that one remaining count.
It wasn't Moody's first crack at separating Banton from the gun verdict.
The judge dismissed the charge at sentencing, saying Banton could not have known that Mack would carry a gun. But an appeals court reinstated it.
Defense attorney Lumumba said afterward that he appreciated Moody's decision on the gun charge but he didn't think the judge went far enough.
"I thought he should have thrown out the whole case," Lumumba said. "If we can't believe her on the Pinkerton issue, we can't believe her on anything else."
Wright's attorney, Lori Palmieri, declined to comment about the looming contempt charge.
Banton, whose real name is Mark Anthony Myrie, attended the hearing, cigar-thick dreadlocks pulled back into a loose braid. Asked how he is doing, Lumumba said this:
"Creative minds suffer when locked up."
Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.