Reggae star Buju Banton gets 10 years in prison for drug scheme

TAMPA — Attorneys for Buju Banton did all they could to remind jurors and a judge that their client was an international reggae star, not a drug kingpin.

They displayed his album covers during Banton's drug conspiracy trial in February. They called Bob Marley's son as a witness and told jurors Banton had won a Grammy.

And on the first page of a recent court filing, attorneys even included a photo of Banton performing on stage.

But it was convicted drug defendant Mark Myrie — Banton's given name — that a federal judge sentenced to 10 years and one month in prison Thursday after his conviction for setting up a deal to buy 11 pounds of cocaine with the intent to distribute it.

Banton, 37, a South Florida resident, had faced 10 years to life in prison.

With good behavior and time already served, Banton could be out of prison in six years, his attorneys told reporters outside the Tampa federal courthouse.

Banton attorney David Markus vowed that his client would one day return to the recording studio. Upon release, Markus said, Banton will go back to his native Jamaica.

"His career is not over," said Markus. "We're looking forward to him winning some more Grammys."

Banton did not speak at the sentencing. But afterward, Markus read a statement written by his client from jail:

"The days that lie ahead are filled with despair, but I have courage and grace and I'm hopeful, and that is sufficient to carry me through. The man is not dead. Don't call him a ghost."

Dozens of letters were sent to U.S. District Court Judge James Moody in support of Banton, including one from actor Danny Glover, a friend of the musician's.

Glover said Banton's music "addresses every aspect of life and feeds the heart, mind, body and soul, bringing a message of hope."

NBA player Etan Thomas wrote, "His songs have guided and inspired me since I was in middle school."

Banton's son Mykaheil, 10, wrote, "I don't know why daddy let the devil tempt him to do wrong. I know that he has changed for the better."

But in the end, the words of prosecutor James Preston, spoken at trial, may provide the epitaph on Banton's career.

"This is not about Buju Banton, the reggae singer," Preston said. "This is about Mark Myrie, the drug defendant."

Judge Moody said he disagreed with the argument that a snitch for the government had lured an otherwise law-abiding Banton into the drug deal.

Moody said, "At no time … did Mr. Myrie ever say, 'No, forget cocaine. Leave me alone.' He never said that. And he could have said that."

Jurors had found Banton guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine; using a telephone to help commit a drug offense; and a gun charge because a co-defendant brought a firearm to the drug deal.

But Moody dismissed the gun charge, saying Banton could not have foreseen a co-defendant bringing the firearm.

The singer's trial 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, working on post-production from a jail phone.

This was Banton's second trial. A jury deadlocked at the first in September 2010.

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

Prosecutors said Banton boasted to the snitch that he had been involved in a big cocaine ring. They said Banton talked about wanting to set up a drug deal with the informant.

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

In a video, Banton is seen tasting cocaine at a Sarasota warehouse on Dec. 8, 2009. But days later, he was not present as the deal was finalized. Prosecutors said he knew it was happening.

Banton testified he was just a boastful talker trying to impress the informer because the man said he could help his career.

Banton was being held at the Pinellas County Jail until he is transferred to federal prison.

When his sentencing was over and U.S. marshals led him away, someone called out, "We love you, Buju."

Banton looked to a friend and said softly, "See you."

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

Reggae star Buju Banton gets 10 years in prison for drug scheme 06/23/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2011 11:39pm]

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