Advertisement
  1. Breaking News

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Former St. Petersburg Housing Authority CEO Tony Love hired Elle Resources as the agency's media and communications firm in 2018. The firm, owned by Michelle Ligon, was paid $5,000 every month, twice the limit on the fixed-price contract, a review by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development found. The review found eight violations of federal regulations and the federal agency has given the Housing Authority until Oct. 29 to explain the violations and come up with a corrective action plan.
    A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development review finds eight violations of federal rules at the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, including “serious lapses” in the award and payment of...
  2. A man uses the bike lane on First Avenue S in 2018. A bicyclist was struck and killed while using the crosswalk in the 2800 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Street N, where the city installed new bike lanes. [TIMES (2018)]  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The crash took place on a stretch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N the city has tried to make safer to bike and walk on.
  3. Stay with tampabay.com for the latest news and updates. Times
    One woman, 82, was crossing 50th Street, and the other, 58, was struck on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
  4. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said the deputy intentionally struck a car to keep up from spinning into oncoming traffic along Curlew Road.
  5. Stay with tampabay.com for the latest news and updates. Times
    A seriously injured man found near Fowler Avenue and 22nd Street died at a hospital, police said.
  6. Erik Maltais took an unconventional path to becoming CEO of Immertec, a virtual reality company aimed at training physicians remotely. He dropped out of school as a teenager, served in Iraq in the Marine Corps and eventually found his way to Tampa. OCTAVIO JONES   |   TIMES  |  Times
    Software from Immertec can bring physicians into an operating room thousands of miles away.
  7. Homeowner Cheryl Murdoch, 59, explains the workings of the Philips Smart Mirror in her bathroom. Murdoch and her husband live in the Epperson neighborhood in Wesley Chapel, home of the Crystal Lagoon, where some residents are piloting new health technologies inside their homes. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    In Pasco’s Crystal Lagoon community, AdventHealth and Metro Development Group are testing in-home technology aimed at keeping people away from the hospital.
  8. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos listens to a speaker share an opinion about a city matter during a city council meeting at Clearwater City Hall in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday, April 20, 2017.  On Thursday, the Clearwater City Council rejected the mayor's resolution urging lawmakers to ban assault weapons.  [Times files] TIMES FILES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    However, the city did pass a resolution calling for more modest gun control measures.
  9. Michael Robert-Jose Harbaugh has pleaded guilty in the 2017 slaying of Safety Harbor neighbor David Sommer, a former reporter. Harbaugh also pleaded guilty to a charge he tried to have a witness in the case killed. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    Former journalist David Sommer was killed in 2017. Michael Harbaugh, 42, agreed to serve 30 years in prison for his crimes.
  10. Homeland Security agents have arrested St. Petersburg police Officer Matthew Enhoffer, left, on child pornography charges. In this 2015 picture, he received the St. Petersburg Police Department's Medal of Valor for Enhoffer's actions in a shootout with an armed suspect that year. Tampa Bay Times
    The arrest comes after Homeland Security agents raided Officer Matthew Enhoffer’s home last week.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement