FLORIDA, USA — When Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton reappears in the Sam M Gibbons Federal Court in Tampa for the start of his drug and gun trial this morning, he does so with what appears to be a deck stacked against him.
Just last week, Judge Jim Moody ruled against a motion by Buju’s legal team seeking to dismiss a superseding indictment. As a result of the ruling by Moody, who will preside over the trial, Buju will now be facing four counts instead of the two for which he was originally tried last September.
The five-time Grammynominated artiste, whose real name is Mark Myrie, had originally been tried on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, and aiding and abetting the possession of a firearm during a drug-trafficking offence.
He will now be tried for conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine; attempted possession with the intent to distribute cocaine; possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drugtrafficking offence; and using the wires to facilitate a drugtrafficking offence.
If convicted, Buju faces up to 20 years’ imprisonment.
The new indictment was secured last November by Prosecutor James Preston in an effort to secure a conviction against the Jamaican artiste, whose legal team is claiming that he had been entrapped by the US Government.
Also, what may weigh on the artiste’s mind when he steps inside the number 13 courtroom on the towering building may be the federal government’s impressive conviction rate of above 90 per cent — and its penchant for winning retrials by multiplying charges.
But if there is any anxiety over what the outcome of this highly anticipated second trial will be, no one is showing, or admitting to it.
Last week, after Moody rejected the motion to dismiss the prosecution’s superseding indictment, David Oscar Markus, the lead attorney on Buju’s legal team, told the Observer, “It’s OK. We are ready.”
Responding yesterday to questions from the Observer about the added charges, Markus said he was not worried as the prosecution still has to show for each charge that his client had been part of a drug deal, in which he said Buju was not involved.
“The prosecution is trying the oldest trick in the book: They are throwing everything against the wall hopping that something sticks and it’s not going to work,” said Markus.
“We are confident in the jury system,” Markus added. “We are optimistic that the jury will do the right thing and find Buju not guilty on all counts.”
Buju’s first trial ended with a hung jury in September after a week of testimony and three days of deliberation. The Observer has learnt that the 12-member jury panel was split seven to five in favour of Buju’s acquittal.
Yesterday afternoon, Buju arrived at his Tampa hotel, looking relaxed, the earphones of a music player attached to his ears. With him are a number of security officers he had to hire as part of his US$250,000 bail condition. Although he is on bail, Buju will however be confined to his hotel room when not at court and all his movements will be monitored by the security officers. The artiste has been under house arrest following his release from bail last November.
While he waited in the hotel lobby for final arrangements to be made for his and his entourage’s accommodation, a polite Banton chatted with visitors to the hotel and took time to pose for pictures.
Asked by the Observer how he felt about the retrial Banton said, “No comment on that.”
The artiste was arrested in December 2009 as part of a sting operation, following the arrests of two men — Ian Thomas and James Mack — in Florida and was slapped with the drug and weapon charges. The men, who pleaded guilty to the charges last year, are expected to testify during the second trial. They did not participate in the previous trial.
The prosecution’s main witness, Alexander Johnson, is expected to start giving evidence today following jury selection. Johnson testified during the last trial that he met Buju on an eight-hour flight from Spain to Florida in 2009 and that within an hour the conversation turned to drug smuggling.
During the trial, recorded conversations of drug trafficking between Johnson and the accused were played. The prosecution also played for the jurors a video of the reggae artiste tasting cocaine in a warehouse during a police operation.
But Buju’s legal team told jurors that Johnson, a paid Government informant, was the one pressing the artiste about making a cocaine deal. Johnson, the court was told, is paid per conviction of cases in which he participates.
Testifying in his own defence, Buju said he was no drug dealer and that he was only bragging about drugs deals to impress Johnson.