Federal jury deciding fate of reggae singer Buju Banton

Elaine Silvestrini of the Tampa Tribune reports on Buju Banton’s trial as the case goes to the jury.  The singer coudl face life in prison if convicted. 

Buju Banton, a prosecutor said, “is a spoiled entertainer used to getting his way.”

The description of the four-time Grammy nominee countered the defense portrait given during summations this morning of a reggae artist who “was the heart and soul of Jamaica” and wouldn’t risk everything to participate in a drug deal.

Now a federal jury is deliberating whether Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, is guilty of conspiring to distribute 5 kilograms of cocaine and possessing a firearm in the course of drug trafficking. Jurors deliberated three hours today before breaking for the evening. They will reconvene Friday morning.

Banton, 37, has been in jail since his arrest in December following a sting at a warehouse owned by the Sarasota Police Department. The sting was the culmination of an investigation that began in July 2009 when the singer, returning with his band from a European tour, happened to sit next to an informant on a flight from Madrid to Miami.

The informant, Alexander Johnson, is a convicted cocaine smuggler who avoided a long prison sentence and earned more than $3 million from the government by going to work for law enforcement.

Authorities recorded numerous conversations in which the two men talked about drug trafficking. They met twice soon after the plane trip but then didn’t get together again until Dec. 8.

In the interim, Johnson called Banton several times, but Banton refused to meet with him, often saying he was touring with his band or had other obligations.

The defense maintains Banton was set up by a “master manipulator, a con man” who charmed the musician and tantalized him with promises of helping his career, then tricked him to go to a warehouse where kilos of cocaine were displayed.

Banton testified he wasn’t serious about the drug conversations, saying it was just talk aimed at impressing Johnson.

“Mark Myrie said a lot of stupid things,” defense attorney David Oscar Markus said in his closing argument. “Yes, it was crazy talk. … We need more than words.”

Markus said Banton didn’t invest any money in the drug transaction and didn’t receive any: “He thought about his career, his family, his friends and his life, and he didn’t participate.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney James Preston said Banton knew what he was doing.

Banton didn’t invest any money, but he placed Ian Thomas, his friend and driver, into the conspiracy, vouching for him and guiding him in the deal, Preston said. Banton not only joined the conspiracy but also “caused it, brought it about.”

“Words have a meaning,” Preston said. “And words have a goal to accomplish a plan. Words can be enough.”

Preston played part of a video made Dec. 8 in the warehouse. After Banton tastes the cocaine, he is seen sitting in a chair while Thomas talks on the phone to other conspirators about the deal. Then Thomas negotiates with Johnson about how much he will charge for the cocaine.

“You name the price,” Banton can be heard saying.

“He’s part of it, up to his neck in it,” Preston said. As they left the warehouse, Banton made sure Thomas and Johnson exchanged phone numbers.

“He never said, ‘No,'” Preston said. “He never said, ‘Stop.’ He never said, ‘Leave me alone.’ He never said, ‘I’m calling the police.'”

For the original report go to http://www2.tbo.com/content/2010/sep/23/231751/federal-jury-deciding-fate-of-reggae-singer-buju-b/news-breaking/

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