MIAMI — Buju Banton checked out some cocaine, put some on his finger and tasted it – all of it caught on law enforcement video inside a Florida warehouse. Now he has another chance to explain why.
The Grammy-nominated singer’s second trial is scheduled to begin Monday with jury selection, five months after a previous jury hung on federal drug trafficking charges that could put him in prison for life.
Banton, whose real name is Mark Myrie, claims he was entrapped by a confidential informant and got in over his head while trying to impress the man, who implied he could help Banton’s music career. The U.S. government says Banton conspired with two associates to buy a shipment of cocaine from an undercover officer.
The two other men pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators. Their sentencing hearings are scheduled next month.
Banton, 37, was arrested in December 2009 at his Miami-area home.
He remained in custody until November, when another Jamaican singer, Stephen Marley, reggae legend Bob Marley’s son, posted his South Florida home as bond. Banton has been on house arrest except for a Miami concert last month to raise money for legal expenses.
Federal prosecutors initially charged Banton with drug conspiracy and gun charges, and in November added two more drug-related charges.
“Buju is not guilty. The number of charges doesn’t change that,” Banton’s attorney, David Markus, said in an e-mail. “The prosecution wasn’t happy with the first trial, so now it is trying to throw as many charges against the wall in the hopes something sticks.”
Markus has argued the singer, who rose from the slums of Kingston to massive success in the 1990s, was a victim of entrapment by an informant who’s been paid $3.3 million for working with law enforcement over several years.
During his first trial, the Rastafarian singer, his long dreadlocks tied in a braid, testifed that he talked a lot about cocaine with the informant, Alexander Johnson. But he said he was only trying to impress the man, who claimed to have music industry connections. He said he had no interest in buying or selling drugs.
“I talk too much, but I am not a drug dealer,” Banton said on the stand.
In excerpts from their recorded conversations from July 2009 through December 2009 that were played for the jury, the husky-voiced singer told Johnson that he financed drug deals and that he wanted to sell drugs in Europe, buy drugs from the Caribbean and South America, and use Johnson’s boat to transport drugs. The men met on a trans-Atlantic flight at the end of Banton’s European tour for his album “Rasta Got Soul.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Preston argued Banton’s conversations with the informant put the conspiracy into motion. Banton testified that he never wanted nor expected Johnson to set up a cocaine deal, despite what he said in the recordings.
Johnson testified that he surprised Banton with cocaine at an undercover police warehouse in Sarasota on Dec. 8, 2009. Surveillance video shows Banton tasting the drugs.
The singer was not present two days later when his two associates, Ian Thomas and James Mack, were caught on video trying to buy the drugs at the warehouse.
Banton’s 2010 album “Before the Dawn” is nominated for a Grammy award Sunday night. The album’s 10 songs were recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, before Banton’s arrest. The singer worked with producers and engineers over the phone from jail to finish the album before its September release.
In an e-mail from his manager, Banton thanked his fans for their support and celebrated his fifth Grammy nomination.
“‘Before The Dawn’ is a prophetic album and if it happens to win I am grateful,” Banton said. “If it doesn’t, I still say thanks for the appreciation and the recognition because music is an art form that cannot be denied by any living soul. Music is my life.”
In Jamaica, some fans have theorized Banton was framed by the U.S. government or gay activists who have protested violent, homophobic lyrics from early in Banton’s career as a brash dancehall singer. Shows in several U.S. cities were canceled on his 2009 tour because of the protests.
Banton jabbed at his detractors during his Jan. 16 performance in Miami, referencing one of his controversial songs and the messiah of his Rastafarian faith.
He said: “Why they want to see Buju Banton cry? Is it because I said ‘Boom Bye Bye’? Is it because I say Selassie I? Is it because I’m black and not shy?”