TAMPA, USA — Jurors will this morning continue deliberations in the closely watched Buju Banton trial following their failure yesterday to reach a verdict after four hours in the jury room.
The jurors retired at approximately 12:40 pm Florida time, after receiving final instructions from Judge Jim Moody, marking the start to an anxious afternoon period for the artiste and his fans. The anxiety was further heightened when at 4:40 pm it appeared the jurors were returning with a verdict.
“We should pray now,” said one supporter.
“We did that already,” another informed him.
To the disappointment of the nervous supporters, which included family members of the artiste, the jurors were only seeking further instructions.
The jury — which now consist of 13 members after one of the two African-American women had to be excused because of ill-health — will continue deliberations at 9:30 am.
Following yesterday’s adjournment, David Markus, the lawyer for the 37-year-old Banton, whose given name is Mark Myrie, said the team remained hopeful.
“It’s hard to say what is going on in there,” Markus said in reference to the deliberations among the jurors. “We just have to stay optimistic.”
In the meantime, Banton’s supporters at the court late yesterday afternoon called on fans worldwide to pray that the jurors would return a not guilty verdict.
They have asked that fans read Psalms 23 and 27 in addition to offering up prayers.
“We are just asking everybody all over the world to pray for Buju’s freedom and stay optimistic,” Hopie Miller, head of Magic Productions, said outside the Gibbons US Court, where the trial has been in progress since Monday.
If convicted, Banton could be sentenced to life imprisonment or slapped with millions of dollars in fines for the charges of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine and illegal possession of a firearm in the furtherance of a crime.
The Jamaican international Reggae artiste was arrested at his Tamarac, Florida home on December 10 last year, following the arrest of former co-accused Ian Thomas and James Mack, who had been in possession of the firearm for which Banton was jointly charged.
Thomas and Mack have since pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in November.
Thomas, who is the godfather of two of Banton’s children, was set to give evidence on behalf of the defence yesterday morning but the entertainer’s legal team decided not to call him.
“We felt we had it without him,” Markus told the Observer during a short break after informing the court of the decision not to call Thomas.
Before the jurors retired yesterday, Markus, in his final argument, told them that his client was innocent and asked that they return a not guilty verdict.
“Ladies and gentlemen, he is not guilty. Mr Myrie is not a drug dealer. Please, please find him not guilty,” Markus said.
“Because he was at the warehouse when the drugs were being inspected does not mean he is guilty of the charge against him,” Markus added.
Markus argued that the Government had not proved its case against Myrie and pointed to the testimony of the Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Daniel McCeaffrey that despite investigating the artiste for a year he could find no evidence against him. Markus also painted US Government informant Alexander Johnson as a “master manipulator and con man”.
“To him this was a pay day. This guy was looking for his jackpot. This is how he makes a living,” Markus said.
But lead prosecutor Jim Preston countered Markus’ claims by telling the jurors that Myrie was “neck deep” in the conspiracy to distribute cocaine and said it was his actions that caused Mack and Thomas’ arrest. Preston said Thomas was brought into the deal by Myrie.
During his address to the jury, Preston on several occasions walked over to Myrie and pointed at him for emphasis.
“Based on the evidence, the Government has presented its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Preston said while urging the jurors to return with a verdict which says, “Buju Banton, guilty as charged”.
Judge Moody, in his summation to the jury, instructed them that not because Banton was on the spot when the contraband was being inspected meant he was guilty of conspiracy. He instructed them to carefully weigh the evidence of a convicted person or a paid government informant because they may have a motive to give false statements.
Johnson has been paid $50,000 for his work on the Banton case and has been a paid informant since his conviction on drug-trafficking charges in 1996.
The judge also informed the jury that their decision had to be unanimous to stand and instructed them that in cases of entrapment they had to find Myrie not guilty if he was not previously willing or if it was because a Government agent enticed him.
Banton, following the judge’s instructions, turned around, with hands clasped, and motioned to his supporters that they should pray for a favourable outcome.
Banton’s lawyers have been claiming that he artiste was entrapped by the Government and Johnson, whom he consistently referred to as a con man