BONDAGE! - Buju faces 15 to life after guilty verdict

Reggae star tells tearful fans ‘Keep loving God’

BY PAUL HENRY Crime Crime/Court co-ordinator henryp@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

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TAMPA, USA — Reggae superstar Buju Banton walked unshackled into the Sam M Gibbons Federal Court yesterday morning but by late afternoon he was led out in handcuffs after a jury, deliberating for a second day, returned guilty verdicts on three of four charges against the Jamaican Grammy-winning artiste.


The verdict, which came at around 2:22 pm, left Banton's overly optimistic supporters in shock, and had them streaming out of the courtroom in tears. The more than two dozen supporters afterward expressed anger and disbelief at the decision which came little over an hour after the lunch break.


Banton stood emotionless as the verdict was being read. Afterwards, he hugged the members of his legal team.


"We love you," Banton's manager Traci McGregor shouted in court immediately after the verdict was read. The artiste similarly responded and told his supporters "Thank you."


The artiste was found guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilogrammes of cocaine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offence, and using the wires to facilitate a drug-trafficking offence.


However, he was found not guilty of attempted possession with the intent to distribute cocaine.


Shortly after, Banton — whose real name is Mark Anthony Myrie — met his legal team of David Oscar Markus, Marc David Seitles and Margot Moss. Markus emerged an hour later telling reporters that the conviction would be appealed.


An emotional Markus read a statement prepared by Banton after the guilty verdict.


"Our life and our destiny are sometimes pre-destined and no matter where this journey takes me, remember I fought the good fight," said the statement. "It was a great man that said 'my head is bloody but still unbowed'. I love you all. Thank you for your support. Keep loving God."


Banton is to be sentenced in another three months and faces 15 years to life behind bars, Markus said. The lawyer is expected to apply to have Banton's US$250,000 bail restored during the period leading up to the sentence.


The artiste had been on trial since Monday, February 14. The 12 jurors, three of whom were African-Americans, started deliberating last Friday morning.


Banton's first trial ended in September last year with the jurors being unable to reach a unanimous verdict, setting up the second trial.


He was arrested on December 10, 2009, hours after two men — Ian Thomas and James Mack — were busted in an undercover warehouse where they had gone to purchase cocaine. US$135,000 was seized and the gun for which Banton was charged was found in Mack's car. Both men had pleaded guilty and are yet to be sentenced.


The operation was set in train in July 2009 as a result of Banton's bragging to US government informant Alexander Johnson that he was a financier of drugs and sought his assistance in expanding his venture.


The prosecution has contended that Banton was instrumental in brokering the deal, which resulted in the arrest. But Banton said that he was not part of the deal, even though he introduced Thomas to Johnson.


Banton said he was merely talking when he spoke with Johnson about making drug deals and that it was Thomas who brokered the deal. The artiste said he backed away from Johnson after December 8, 2009 when Johnson showed him cocaine in a warehouse. Banton was captured on video tasting the drug.


Minutes after eight o'clock yesterday morning, a relaxed Banton made the short stroll from his hotel to the court surrounded by his attorneys, security detail and supporters. Moments before the jurors resumed deliberations yesterday morning, supporters sent up fervent and lengthy prayers for the artiste's freedom in the hallway of the court.


Despite the verdict, supporters still hold out faith that God will free Banton on appeal.


"Last thing me and DJ spoke about was going home," add a tearful Wayne Wonder, with whom Banton made numerous hit songs in the 1990s. "He was the one who told us to stay strong. It's not over yet."


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