TAMPA, USA — A contrite and apologetic Buju Banton yesterday took the witness stand in his cocaine trial, denying that he was a trafficker or a financier of any illicit drug activities.
But the soft-spoken Jamaican Grammy nominee Reggae artiste admitted two things: that he was naïve, and that he was only “talking crap” when he was recorded telling Government informant Alexander Johnson that he was a drug financier, who was in search of new drug ventures.
“Like my mom always say, ‘Mark, you talk a lot,’ and that is the consequence of it,” said the 37-year-old entertainer, whose given name is Mark Myrie, during cross-examination from prosecutor Jim Preston.
Banton said he was ashamed of himself for the things he had said, but told the attentive jurors that “talking crap” did not make him a dealer.
Banton had been eagerly awaiting this moment for the past several months following his arrest last December at his home in Florida. He was charged with conspiracy to distribute five kilogrammes of cocaine. If convicted, he could be sent to prison for life and fined several million dollars.
Decked in a grey sports jacket with a light blue under shirt and dark pants, a serious-looking Banton took to the stand while the jurors were on a short break.
He chatted with his attorney, David Oscar Markus and cased the room in the Gibbons US Court to look at his supporters, who were all anxiously waiting to hear the entertainer speak in his own defence after Markus announced that Banton would be taking the witness box because the “truth was on his side”.
The five-minute break before the jurors returned seemed like an eternity to anxious supporters, who milled about nervously. But alas, the 14 jurors — two African-Americans, the others whites — returned at 2:45 pm, taking their seats in front of the entertainer.
“Are you guilty of being a cocaine trafficker?” Markus wasted no time in asking.
“No, Sir, I’m not,” Banton promptly responded as he went on to deny the charges against him.
“How do you feel?” Markus asked.
“I’m scared,” Banton said, managing an awkward smile. “I’m nervous. I’ve been waiting 10 months.”
He was, however, prevented from completing the statement due to an objection from lead prosecutor Jim Preston, which was sustained by Judge Jim Moody.
At Markus’ prompting Banton proceeded to recall how he met Johnson on a flight from Madrid, Spain following a tour of the European continent in July 2009 and how he got to like Johnson’s company.
He said he and Johnson spoke on a number of topics during the eight-hour flight to Florida, USA and that Johnson was the one who raised the issue of drugs after both men had had a few glasses of wine which Johnson ordered.
He said both men spoke about the entertainment business and Johnson told him that he had contacts within the industry.
Banton testified that before the argument of drugs came up, Johnson had told him that he had a seafood business but that he did “a little thing on the side”, which the entertainer took to mean that the “side” enterprise may have been illegal. Banton said his suspicion was further heightened when Johnson pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and showed it to him.
Nonetheless, Banton said he was having a good time talking with Johnson and that he found him quite affable.
“He was a funny guy,” said the entertainer with a smile.
Banton said that Johnson asked if Jamaicans transported weed with go-fast boats, and confided that he (Johnson) used to ship ganja but switched to cocaine.
The singer said the two never spoke much about the subject as Johnson kept looking over his shoulders.
Banton testified that he gave his number to Johnson, who gave his name as Junior, and that he received a call from him the following day, saying that he wanted to meet the next day, which they did at a restaurant.
“We were having a good time,” Banton said of the meeting at the restaurant in Florida on July 27.
He said he had no idea that Johnson had invited him to the restaurant to talk about drugs, and that he had left the restaurant and was meeting outside with his realtor when Johnson approached him and asked if he had talked to his friend about the cocaine venture.
Asked by his attorney about his drug discussions with Johnson, Banton said that he was just yapping to impress Johnson and that he was not a drug dealer and was not interested in making any drug deal.
“I was talking garbage. I was just talking straight up garbage! He was trying out-talk me,” Banton said, a line he would maintain throughout his close to two hours in the witness box. “I was trying to impress him.”
As he looked directly at the jurors, and spoke in an animated way, Banton again denied ever doing any drug deal in his life, contrary to what the prosecution is contending, based on the entertainer’s recorded conversations with Johnson.
“I’m just a humble musician. I was just talking above my head. I was trying to impress this guy and that’s what got me into this hot seat,” the entertainer said in a contrite tone.
Regarding the December 8 meeting between himself, Johnson, and Ian Thomas, where the artiste was videotaped tasting cocaine during a covert operation by the Sarosata police department, Banton said he had no idea that he was going to a warehouse to see drugs, but instead he thought he was going to inspect a sailboat.
“Do you like boats? questioned Markus.
“Yes, Sir I do,” Banton replied, adding that had he known that drugs were involved he would not have left his house to meet with Johnson.
It was at that meeting that Banton introduced Johnson to Thomas, who is the godfather of two of the artiste’s children.
Banton said he continued meeting with Johnson even though the Colombian was always talking about drugs, because he liked him and thought he could connect him with people in Los Angeles who could sign him to a record deal in light of the fact that his contract with Tommy Boy Records had expired that year.
Reality, the artiste said, struck on that fateful December 8 day when he went to the warehouse and the five kilograms of cocaine was presented.
He said after that meeting he wanted nothing more to do with Johnson, whom he said was “attacking” Thomas about making cocaine deals the moment they were introduced.
“I never sold cocaine, I never bought cocaine, I never shot cocaine,” Banton said before his grilling by Preston began.
Earlier, during the morning session, while Johnson was being cross-examined, Markus had attempted to paint the convicted drug dealer as a man who was steeped in debt, including taxes, and who was motivated by the money he stood to make from Banton’s arrest.
In light of this, Markus attempted to establish that Johnson vigorously pursued Banton, constantly calling the artiste to make drug deals.
It is already public knowledge that Johnson had made US$50,000 working undercover on the case.
Johnson had been working undercover for the us Government since 1996, following his conviction on drug-trafficking charges. He has, over a three-year period, made US$3 million as a Government informant.
Johnson said yesterday that his work with the Government was his only source of income. He is paid by the number of arrests he is able to secure.
Johnson is said to owe over $100,000 in taxes, is behind on his mortgage payments and is deep in credit card debt. He has filed for bankruptcy.
Banton had waited since last December to speak in his own defence, but Preston made sure it was not a cakewalk.
Straight off the bat, the grey-haired Caucasian prosecutor pounced, reminding Banton of his boasting on the recordings that he is a big-time cocaine financier, who was looking to expand his illicit drug empire.
“That was me on the tape, but I walked away,” Banton said while gesturing with his hands.
Asked by Preston how — if he were not a cocaine dealer — did he know the price of cocaine in different parts of the world, Banton said that “you hear a lot” being in the entertainment business.
“I talked a lot of crap, Sir,” the artiste said during one of his exchanges with Preston. “I just talk a lot. I did not do anything.”
Asked by Preston if he was “talking crap” when he spoke of cocaine buyers in Europe, Banton said he was “plain out lying”.
Asked his motives for “lying”, Banton said he thought Johnson could get him a record deal.
“I regret speaking like that. It has caused me tremendous pain and my family. If I were a drug dealer I would have taken the plea deal you offered me,” Banton said as he tried to remain calm under cross-examination.
He later said he was ashamed of himself for the things that he had said, and that he had worked too hard over the past 20 years to establish himself to throw it all away over such little money.
Preston suggested that Banton had been facing financial problems at the time, which the artiste denied.
The Reggae singer said also that he spoke to Johnson about legitimate business ventures, but that Johnson only wanted to talk about drugs.
He said he did not put Johnson in touch with Thomas for them to close any cocaine deal.
Thomas was arrested on December 10 along with a James Mack. Both men were jointly charged with Banton, but pleaded guilty on a lesser charge. They will be sentenced in November. Thomas is expected to testify for the defence today.
Mack had yesterday refused to testify for the defence out of fear that he may hurt his chances of receiving a favourable sentence.
Also yesterday, Reggae artiste Stephen Marley, the son of late Reggae icon Bob Marley testified on Banton’s behalf. He said he had been friends with Banton for more 19 years and did not know him to be a drug dealer.