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New drug conspiracy trial under way in Tampa for reggae star Buju Banton

TAMPA — Reggae star Buju Banton has more No. 1 hits than legend Bob Marley, Banton's attorney says. On Sunday, he won his first Grammy. He's performed on both sides of the Atlantic.

But on Monday, Banton stood before an audience far smaller than the ones he usually sees.

It's a federal court jury.

Banton's retrial on drug conspiracy charges opened in federal court with prosecutors saying he helped set up a deal to buy $135,000 in cocaine.

Banton, 37, whose real name is Mark Myrie, faces life in prison.

Banton's attorneys said he was entrapped by an overly eager confidential informer who has earned $3.3 million in the last 14 years snitching in drug cases.

Jurors deadlocked at Banton's first trial in September, and a judge declared a mistrial.

Banton attorney David Markus told jurors about his client's Grammy right up front.

"He won a Grammy last night," Markus said in his opening statement. "This isn't a person who is a drug dealer. This is a person who loves what he does."

Prosecutor James Preston told jurors that the drug deal was first broached on a flight from Spain when Banton had the ill fortune of sitting next to drug snitch Alexander Johnson.

The pair got talking and drinking and the conversation eventually turned to cocaine.

Preston said Banton told the informer he was part of a cocaine ring out of South America.

"The defendant was shopping around for a new conspiracy," Preston said.

But Markus said authorities never found evidence such a drug ring existed. Banton, he said, was trying to impress a man who told him he could help the singer with his music career.

Banton will testify later in the trial, his attorney said, and will tell jurors he wanted no part in the drug deal.

Preston said jurors will hear Banton's own voice, recorded by the informer, as he talks about the cocaine deal.

The courtroom in U.S. District Court is a far cry from the glitz of Los Angeles where Banton's album, Before the Dawn, won a Grammy as best reggae album.

Banton, who lives in the Miami area, was unable to attend the ceremonies.

Banton's album was recorded before his December 2009 arrest, but he worked on post-production via a jail telephone.

Banton was raised in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica, and the criminal case is being followed closely there.

The last witness Monday was informer Johnson, who earned $50,000 working on the case.

The outcome may hinge on his testimony.

Johnson earned up to 30 percent of money seized in any drug case he works on, and once served prison time for drug offenses.

Banton's attorney portrayed him as a tax cheat who owed the IRS $200,000.

Testimony for the day ended unexpectedly when an ill juror vomited into a garbage can during Johnson's testimony.

The trial is expected to last through the week.

Outside the courthouse, Banton told reporters he thanked God for giving him a good jury.

"I ask that they listen to the entire case and listen to the facts," he said.

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

New drug conspiracy trial under way in Tampa for reggae star Buju Banton 02/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 14, 2011 11:59pm]
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