Reggae star Buju Banton pleaded not guilty to drug charges during a federal court arraignment yesterday, amid reports that his alleged drug-purchsing conspiracy was caught on video. The 36-year-old singer, born Mark Myrie, did not seek bail. If he had been granted bail, Banton, who is not a U.S. citizen, would have simply been handed into the custody of the immigration authorities. Banton, a native of Jamaica, is in the United States on an entertainer’s visa.
“Mark is innocent,” defense attorney David Markus said. “And the government’s case has got no soul.” Proving his innocence could present some challenges, as the Drug Enforcement Administration says it has video and audio of Banton and his associates brokering a drug deal for more than five kilograms of cocaine in Sarasota. The criminal complaint, said the Tampa Bay newspaper, “reads like a script from a Miami Vice episode.”
On the morning of Dec. 8, a confidential source called Banton and agreed to meet him at a Sarasota restaurant to discuss a drug buy. Later that day, Banton and an associate, Ian Thomas, met with the source at La Tropicana de Havana restaurant in Sarasota. After the meeting, the men traveled to an undercover warehouse controlled by Sarasota police. Once inside, Thomas cut open a kilo of cocaine with a knife and then handed the blade to Banton, who wiped the blade with his finger and tasted it, according to the complaint. The men discussed the price for the drugs before leaving the warehouse. On Dec. 10, Thomas and Mack went to the undercover warehouse and presented a large sum of money for the drugs. The men were arrested on the spot. Banton was arrested at his Tamarac home later the same day.
The whole incident was caught on audio and video, according to the complaint. Banton’s trial is expected to begin in March.
Banton’s latest album, Rasta Got Soul, received a Grammy nomination. Winners will be announced on Jan. 31.