TAMPA — Grammy-winning reggae star Buju Banton came within two votes of acquittal during jury deliberations at his 2011 federal drug trial, his lawyers say.
But several days later, 12 federal jurors unanimously agreed to convict him.
Banton's attorneys asked a U.S. District Court judge at a hearing Thursday to grant Banton a new trial, arguing jurors may have been persuaded to convict Banton and switch their votes to "guilty" because of the alleged misconduct of one juror.
That juror, lawyers said, told a reporter for the Miami New Times in October that she researched aspects of the case during trial despite a judge's instructions not to do so. And the woman failed to tell lawyers that she had served as a juror in seven previous cases.
The juror told the court at Banton's trial she had only served on one previous jury.
Judge James Moody said he would issue a ruling at a later date.
Banton, 39, who was convicted of setting up a deal to buy and distribute 11 pounds of cocaine, attended the hearing and is serving a 10-year sentence.
Jurors are routinely instructed not to conduct their own research during a case. That's so jurors all hear the same evidence and aren't contaminated by outside information that might be incorrect or irrelevant.
Juror Terri Wright of Tampa was quoted in a Miami New Times article by reporter Chris Sweeney in October as saying, "I would get in the car, just write my notes down so I could remember, and I would come home and do the research."
Wright, according to the article, also said, "They give you the instructions not to go online and, you know, make an opinion. I tried to follow that as close as possible. I don't think what I found out would have changed how I thought."
Wright testified Thursday that she misunderstood Sweeney's questions about the research. A few weeks after his story, she sent Sweeney a text message.
"There is a huge misunderstanding with your questions ... I did my research AFTER the case was over ... NOT during the case," the message said. "It is clear I misunderstood your question. This is not right. I trusted you. Now I feel totally betrayed."
But Sweeney, who also testified at the hearing, recorded the interview, and Banton's attorney played portions of it for Judge Moody. The recording appeared to show that Wright was quoted accurately.
Wright acknowledged telling the reporter she had been a juror seven times before serving on Banton's case. She said she did not volunteer that information "because that wasn't a question" during jury selection.
But she insisted her research was done after the case was over.
Prosecutor James Preston told the judge a new trial could only be ordered if the defense demonstrates research done at trial helped convince jurors to convict Banton.
The judge refused to allow Banton's attorney Chokwe Lumumba to ask Wright, or three other jurors called to testify, other details about deliberations, most notably the panel's swing from a 10-to-2 vote for acquittal to a unanimous vote to convict Banton. (The vote was first reported by Sweeney.)
Moody said, "I'm not going to get into the thought process of the jurors."
Three other jurors in the case were called to testify. Two said they had not seen or heard another juror talk about outside research. A third juror, however, said one juror talked in deliberations about research on a legal concept at issue at Banton's trial.
But the juror said nothing she heard affected her decision to convict Banton.
"This was clearly misconduct," said Lumumba, who told the judge a new trial must be granted to "protect the sanctity of the jury system."
Moody must eventually resentence Banton on a gun charge the judge had dismissed after the trial. Banton was convicted of the charge because a co-defendant brought a firearm to the drug deal. Moody had ruled Banton could not have known. An appeals court reinstated the conviction on that charge.
It is expected to add five years to Banton's prison term when Moody re-sentences him. A date has not yet been scheduled.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.