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Convicted in Tampa, Reggae star Buju Banton freed from prison

Dancehall and reggae star Buju Banton, seen here in this 2010 photo, before he was convicted in a Tampa courtroom of federal drug charges. He is reportedly to be set free from a U.S. Prison and flown back to Jamaica. [Times files]
Published Dec. 7, 2018

Dancehall and Reggae star Buju Banton is free.

Banton, who was convicted in a Tampa courtroom in 2011 on federal drug charges, was freed Friday from Georgia's private McMcRae Correctional Institute, a prison official told the Tampa Bay Times.

The 45-year-old music star was to return to his native Jamaica. A video of a man reported to be Banton boarding a plane was published on Twitter on Friday and #freebuju hashtags were all over social media.

Born Mark Myrie, he served seven years in federal prison in one of the most high-profile cases tried in the Sam M. Gibbons United States Courthouse in downtown Tampa.

The Guardian wrote that Banton would be the "most eagerly awaited arrival in Jamaica since Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie touched down in April 1966." Jamaican officials confirmed to the British newspaper that the artist was expected to return to his native country.

The newspaper described Banton as "perhaps the most famous Jamaican artist whose name isn't Marley."

Reared in Kingston and nicknamed "Buju" by his mother, he rose to prominence at a young age in the 1990s as one of the premier dancehall artists. He overtook Reggae legend Bob Marley's record for No. 1 singles on the Jamaican charts in 1992, according to the Guardian.

But Banton was also the subject of international condemnation for a violently homophobic song that "openly incited the killing of gay people," according to the Guardian. As a result, 28 of his shows were cancelled from 2005 to 2011. In 2007, the newspaper said he vowed to never again incite "hatred or violence."

His legal troubles started on a 2009 flight from Spain to the United States. Banton was seated next to an informant who federal agents had paid $3.3 million over 14 years. The prosecution said Banton boasted of his role in a large cocaine smuggling ring, and talked to the informant about setting up a deal.

The trial started on Feb. 14, 2011, the day after he won a Grammy for best reggae album, Before the Dawn, recorded before his arrest.

At his Tampa trial, federal prosecutors showed the jury audio and video recordings of Banton that they said proved he was involved in the deal to buy 11 pounds of cocaine for $135,000.

One video showed the performer tasting cocaine at a Sarasota warehouse on Dec. 8, 2009, though he was not present when the deal was finalized.

Banton told the jury that he was just boasting to impress someone who he believed could help his music career.

The defense emphasized Banton's musical career, displaying his album covers, telling jurors about his Grammy award and even calling one of Bob Marley's sons to the stand.

"This is not about Buju Banton, the reggae singer," a prosecutor told the jury. "This is about Mark Myrie, the drug defendant."

In June 2011 he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

During the trial, while Banton was being held in the Pinellas County jail, he wrote this letter to the court:

"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."

Banton's case and appeals would drag on for years in federal court, however, and even one of the jurors in his 2011 conviction would end up in serious trouble years later.

Former juror foreman Terri Wright was found guilty in 2015 of contempt for researching the case outside of court. U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr., who also presided over the Banton trial, sentenced her to five months of probation, 40 hours of community service and ordered her to research and write a report about the cost of Banton's high-profile trial.

Former Miami New Times reporter Chris Sweeney wrote a story in 2012 that suggested Wright ignored the court's order and researched the case on her own. The reporter even testified the juror.

Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report, which uses information from Times files and other news organizations.

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