TAMPA, USA — Defence attorney David Markus slung his arms across the shoulders of his lanky Reggae superstar client ‘Buju Banton’ at the end of the morning session of his cocaine trial at the Gibbons US Court here yesterday.
The gesture was one of support and reassurance after what appeared to be a tough first session for the defence.
Earlier, Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, could not stop shaking his head as he listened for a lengthy period as the prosecution played potentially damning recordings of his conversations with government informant Alexander Johnson, discussing drug deals and even diamond smuggling from Africa to Europe.
Banton's fans, who had turned out in their numbers for the trial that started on Monday, were also stung by the recordings which were made between July and December 10, 2009 when Banton and two other men were arrested in Florida and slapped with cocaine-related charges.
The fans appeared deflated, coming off a high on Monday when the chief investigator in the matter said he had no evidence that Banton was a cocaine trafficker.
Yesterday, as the tapes were being played, one woman could be seen clutching her head and covering her ears. Others sat attentively, captivated by the conversations between the four-time Grammy nominee and Johnson, a convicted drug trafficker who has been working with the US Government since 1996 to sink other narco dealers.
Also played for the court was the video recording of December 8, 2009 in which Banton was seen tasting cocaine from a knife given to him by his long-time friend Ian Thomas after he used it to cut open a package containing five kilogrammes of cocaine during an undercover operation by the Sarasota Police Department at a warehouse.
Thomas was heard on the video saying that the cocaine was fish scale. Johnson later told the court that the term meant that the drug was of a high quality.
The mood, however, changed somewhat in the late afternoon when Banton's lawyer started his examination of Johnson, who agreed that the singer did not finance the drug deal for which he, along with Thomas and James Mack from Georgia was arrested and charged with conspiracy to distribute five kilogrammes of cocaine.
Thomas and Mack have since pleaded guilty and have agreed to give evidence against the singer. The prosecution had on Monday indicated to the court that it would not call Thomas as a witness.
If found guilty, Banton could be sentenced to life imprisonment or slapped with millions of US dollars in fines.
Before the recordings were played yesterday, Johnson testified that he met Banton on a flight from Madrid, Spain, to Miami, Florida in July 2009. The flight lasted eight hours, Johnson said, and a conversation about drug dealing came up within an hour.
He said it was the singer who raised the issue. Johnson, who avoided looking at Banton during his evidence-in-chief, said immediately after landing he informed the police about his conversation with Banton which jump-started the investigation that included the recordings.
Johnson told the court that he met with Banton the following day, July 27, to further discuss the drug-trafficking venture, which he said the artiste was interested in starting.
The prosecution then played the expletive-laced recordings, which were made between July and December and in which the 37-year-old Banton was heard telling Johnson, "I am about making money, straight up".
Banton was also heard asking Johnson if he had any contacts to acquire cocaine as he was willing to finance a deal. He also told Johnson that he did not have contacts in Venezuela and Panama, but that he was involved in smuggling diamonds from Africa to Europe.
He was also heard telling Johnson that: "It would be good to have our own contacts," and that he would like to start small, as "I don't want to take any risks".
The artiste also warned the informant that he should stay away from a man known as Lloyd Evans as he was a snitch.
"There are a lot of snitches in the game," Banton warned Johnson at one point, saying that it was hard for him to find anyone to trust.
Banton, dressed in a grey sports coat, shook his head while the recordings were being played and at some points appeared tense.
As the recordings kept rolling, some people in the courtroom chuckled in disbelief. Others seemed captivated.
In one conversation Banton was heard cursing and complaining to Johnson that the gay community, particularly the gay rights group GLAD (Gays and Lesbians Advocates and Defenders), was trying to ruin his career.
Banton had been at odds with the gay community since the 1990s following the release of his anti-gay monster hit Boom Bye Bye.
He was also heard complaining of being stressed out and said that he had 15 kids whose school fees needed to be paid.
With the case appearing to swing in favour of the prosecution, supporters who had earlier that morning held hands and prayed inside the 13A courtroom for an acquittal -- as has been their routine since the trial started -- expressed hope that the pendulum would again swing in their favour as it approached time for Johnson to be placed under the spotlight of cross-examination from lead defence attorney Markus.
Markus stood, took to the podium with his papers. Banton's supporters held their breath. He politely greeted the 14 jurors — two of whom are African-Americans, the others white -- then Johnson, and proceeded to whip out a card on which he had key parts of Johnson's evidence typed. On one side of the card, displayed for jurors to see, were a set of check boxes in which he ticked when Johnson answered a question posed.
"Mr Myrie did not invest any money in any drug deal?"
"With me? No," the reply came.
Johnson, a Colombian who had served three years for drug-trafficking and was spared deportation in order to work with the US Government as an informant, said the artiste never sold or bought drugs and had never wired any money to him to invest in the illicit trade.
Johnson also admitted that Banton had never purchased any cocaine in Panama or Colombia and that their dealings never went beyond talk.
He, however, said that Banton had changed his mind from the initial talks of wanting to traffic drugs to making quick cash. Johnson said that was how the eight kilogrammes of cocaine came into play.
The informant did not readily answer when Markus asked if Myrie had stopped taking his calls following the warehouse meeting of December 8.
"Didn't Ian Thomas tell you, 'He [Myrie] does not want to do anything man? Talk to me. That's not him. He is about music, he eats and sleeps the music'?" Markus asked, to which Johnson replied 'yes'.
Markus is contending that his client had got cold feet and backed out of any previous talks to finance any drug venture and had stopped taking Johnson's calls, and that Thomas took over the deal.
But Johnson stuck to his guns, saying that it was Banton and Thomas who approved the deal, even though the US$130,000 may have come from two men in Georgia called Ike and Tyke.
Johnson also told the court that he had no knowledge that Myrie had financed the deal in the police-controlled warehouse that led to Thomas and Mack's arrest while attempting to purchase cocaine from US Drug Enforcement Agency agents.
Markus is expected to continue cross-examining Johnson when the trial resumes this morning.