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Mistrial declared in drug conspiracy case against reggae star Buju Banton

TAMPA — With a jury still deadlocked after nearly three days of deliberations, a federal judge declared a mistrial Monday afternoon in the drug case against reggae star Buju Banton.

A prosecutor said he will go before a grand jury this week to prepare for a new trial. And defense attorneys expect to be going back in court by year's end.

"We were hoping to get a good verdict, but the 12 jurors didn't believe that Banton did it," said David Markus, Banton's defense attorney. "The government tried to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt and didn't do it."

For now, Banton will return to jail and await the judge setting bail or another trial.

After the mistrial was declared, Banton stood before the court and said, "Thank you all," in a low raspy voice before walking away with his ankles chained.

Before lunch on Monday, jurors informed U.S. District Judge James Moody they remained undecided.

"We are still split on a decision and after reviewing evidence, nobody has changed their minds from our original vote on Thursday," said a note to the judge.

Moody implored the jurors to continue working throughout the morning. But by 3 p.m., when the group had yet to reach a decision, he declared a mistrial.

Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, has been held in jail since December on drug conspiracy charges.

His six-day trial featured recordings of conversations Banton, 37, had with a drug dealer-turned-government informer named Alexander Johnson. Prosecutors presented audio recordings in which the men discussed drugs, drug prices and smuggling. Johnson was paid $50,000 for his work on the case.

Prosecutors also showed a video of Banton and an associate, Ian Thomas, meeting Johnson at a police-controlled warehouse in Sarasota on Dec. 8. At the meeting, Thomas used a knife to cut into a kilogram of cocaine, and Banton ran his finger along the blade and then tasted it.

During the two days following that meeting, Johnson, Thomas and a Georgia man named James Mack brokered a deal with undercover police officers to buy five kilograms, or 11 pounds, of cocaine.

Mack and Thomas were arrested on Dec. 10. Banton, who prosecutors argued was a part of the deal, was arrested later that day at his South Florida home.

Mack and Thomas entered pleas in the case, while Banton chose to go to trial.

Banton's legal woes became the talk of his home country Jamaica, where he is considered a reggae icon. Debates about the four-time Grammy nominee peppered corners to barbershops to boardrooms.

"He's a major, major figure here, so his trial has dominated the media and people's conversations," Jamaican musicologist and disc jockey Bunny Goodison said. "He's been extremely important through the years because he's represented Rastafari and black consciousness in a very focused way."

The federal trial in Tampa was sprinkled with reggae elite.

Grammy-winning reggae star Stephen Marley, son of the late Bob Marley, testified for Banton. U.S. chart-topper Wayne Wonder sat among spectators.

Monday's mistrial came a day before Banton's latest album, Before the Dawn, hits stores.

"It's a powerful record in that it speaks volumes about what's going on in Buju's life," said Tracii McGregor, president of Gargamel Music, Banton's label.

Markus said he will request bail for Banton. The Jamaican citizen's entertainer visa was revoked when he was arrested. If the judge grants bail, Banton could have to wear a monitor.

Information from Times wires was used in this report. Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (813)226-3405.

Mistrial declared in drug conspiracy case against reggae star Buju Banton 09/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 7:02am]
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