Day 1 in court for Buju

Buju Banton

TAMPA, USA — THE first day of the cocaine trial of Jamaican reggae superstar ‘Buju Banton’ ended with what the artiste’s lawyers and supporters described as a good day.

The tension in the air during the morning session of the trial at the Gibbons US Court was all gone when court adjourned for the day, some minutes after four yesterday afternoon.

The many Jamaicans — musicians included — and supporters of varying nationalities who travelled from as far as Los Angeles for the trial, expressed relief after the prosecution’s first witnesses gave evidence.

What made them especially confident of Banton’s innocence and that he was set up, was the evidence of Drug Enforcement Agent Daniel McCaffrey, the man who led the investigations into the allegations of drug trafficking against the artiste, whose given name is Mark Anthony Myrie.

“To me, the case sounds weak,” Gramps Morgan from the Reggae group Morgan Heritage told the Observer.

At the end of the proceedings, an equally confident David Markus, Banton’s attorney, seemed more upbeat.

“We had a very good first day,” Markus told the Observer. “We feel very good. The truth is on our side. Buju is innocent.”

McCaffrey’s evidence excited and gave hope to Banton’s legal team and his supporters as the agent said during cross examination that after a year of investigation he had no evidence that the artiste was a drug dealer.

“You had to go by the word of an informant?” Markus asked, to which McCaffrey answered “correct”.

He also said that there was no recorded evidence that there was any agreement for the artiste to benefit from the sale of the drugs for which he and two other men were busted last year December, nor that the US$130,000 that was seized during the bust was supplied by Banton.

In fact, McCaffrey agreed that the money brought from the state of Georgia by James Mack to purchase the five kilogrammes of drugs may have been provided by two alleged drug dealers who were being investigated and who go by the names Ike and Tike.

At this point, Banton’s supporters in the court were engulfed in muffled laughter and giving off “I told you so” sounds.

Banton is on trial for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five or more kilogrammes of cocaine. The charge carries a minimum sentence of 20 years to life in prison and a fine of up to US$4 million.

He is being tried by a jury of 14 people, two of whom are African-Americans, a fact that has drawn comments from Banton’s supporters who felt that the composition was not a jury of the Jamaican singer’s peers. The panel also comprises six women.

Banton was arrested on December 10, the same day Mack and Ian Thomas were held. But men have recently signed plea bargain arrangements and have agreed to assist prosecutors.

However, yesterday the prosecution, lead by Jim Preston, indicated in court that it would not be calling Thomas as a witness. Markus then asked for him to be made available as a defence witness.

Markus is contending that Banton was entrapped by the US Government and a convicted drug dealer — Alexander Johnson — who had raked in millions working undercover for the state. He said yesterday that Johnson had earned US$50,000 working the Buju Banton case.

During his opening argument yesterday afternoon, Preston told the court that Banton and Johnson met on a flight from Madrid, Spain in July 2009 and that the two started discussing drugs.

“Do you have any contact where I can get cocaine?” Preston said Banton asked Johnson.

Preston said that by this time Banton was already a financier of a multi-million dollar cocaine smuggling ring that spanned the Caribbean, South America and Europe and was seeking to invest in new smuggling ventures.

He told the court that Banton discussed the price of drugs with Johnson, a Colombian working with the US Government since his 1996 conviction and who had received a dramatically reduced sentence.

The prosecutor said that Banton boasted to Johnson that he only financed drug ventures, that he was the best at what he did and that he would never be arrested because he stayed on the outside of deals.

He said the prosecution would be playing recordings of telephone conversations with Banton discussing cocaine deals with Johnson and that the men met on several occasions, culminating with his arrest.

“I’m going to show you his other career,” Preston told jurors.

Expected to be played also is a recording of a December meeting in a Florida warehouse where Banton tasted cocaine brought to him by Johnson.

In his opening remarks, Markus did not deny that Banton tasted the cocaine, saying that it was a terrible mistake. He, however, said that Banton had a choice to make and decided not to deal with Johnson any further and went home.

“He’s guilty of talking a lot, guilty of tasting, but not guilty of dealing drugs,” Markus said.

Markus said that Banton was not aware that Johnson was going to bring drugs to the meeting because he was under the impression that he was going to look at a boat Johnson had. He said also that Banton had been avoiding Johnson and that Johnson was desperate in pursuing the artiste because of the money he stood to gain from an arrest.

The lawyer said that Johnson had resorted to telling lies on others and setting them up to maintain his high lifestyle and that he had purchased a million-dollar house in Florida.

Markus also pointed out to jurors that it was Mack and Thomas who made the deal that led to the arrest and that Banton had nothing to do with it. He said also that Thomas had pointed this out to Johnson.

Banton is expected to testify in the trial, which is being presided over by Judge Jim Moody.

Entered into evidence yesterday were the five kilogrammes of cocaine for which Banton was charged, pictures of the illicit drugs, as well as photos of the cash seized.

A forensic chemist testified that the substance involved in the case was in fact cocaine, while an intelligence research specialist testified to the number of calls that were placed between Banton, Johnson and Thomas.

Throughout the proceedings Banton, dressed in a grey sports coat and black pants, appeared relaxed, chatting with his lawyers at times.

Earlier in the morning when he walked into court, the entertainer greeted the members of his legal team and saluted his supporters which included his relatives and members of his band. He appears physically healthy and seems as if he has gained weight.

The trial continues today.

Jamaica Observer

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