Tampa: Despite pleas for leniency from family members, fans and supporters, a federal judge sentenced Grammy-winning reggae singer Buju Banton on Thursday to 10 years in prison Thursday for conspiring to set up a cocaine deal.
Banton was found guilty of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense and using a telephone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense.
Dozens of letters to U.S. District Judge James S. Moody are included in the court file for the 37-year-old recording artist, whose given name is Mark Myrie. Several of his 15 children wrote, as did a former Jamaican government official, an NBA player, other reggae artists and actor Danny Glover, who called Banton a "role model, philanthropist and spiritual leader in the community."
"Your honor, Mark Myrie is not a drug dealer," Glover wrote. "Society would not benefit from his incarceration."
Banton`s attorney, David Markus, says federal sentencing guidelines call for a prison term of at least 15 years. In a court filing, Markus told Moody that is "way more than necessary" in Banton`s case.
The judge did throw out a gun charge, lowering Banton`s sentence from 15 years to 10. He was also ordered to serve five years of probation following his release from prison.
Markus contended that Banton deserved a lower sentence because of his limited participation in the drug buy, his charitable work in Jamaica and his otherwise clean record.
Banton`s oldest son, also named Mark Myrie, wrote that his father "puts hard work, sweat and tears into his music and that is what (he) `puts on the table,` it has never been drugs....The situation is just an example of our mere imperfections as people, being at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Preston argued during trial that Banton portrayed himself as a broker of drug deals in several conversations with a confidential informant. Preston said Banton thought he was getting involved in a "no-risk" deal in which he would introduce a friend to a confidential informant and then collect money from drug transactions.
Prosecutors acknowledge that Banton did not put any money into the drug deal nor did he ever profit from it. Markus characterized his client as "a big talker" who admitted to trying to impress the confidential informant but wasn`t involved in any drug deal.
Much of the case hinged on meetings and phone calls that were video- and audiotaped by the informant, who was working with the Drug Enforcement Administration — and who made $50,000 in commission after the bust.
In one video, Banton could be seen tasting cocaine in a Sarasota warehouse on Dec. 8, 2009. But he was not present during the actual drug deal on Dec. 10 that led two others to be arrested. Those two men later pleaded guilty.
Banton testified that the informant badgered him after they met on a trans-Atlantic flight in July 2009 and insisted they meet to set up a cocaine purchase. He said he was so uninterested in the informant`s proposals that after they met twice, Banton didn`t return the man`s phone calls for months.
Banton remains wildly popular in Jamaica, and his trial — his second over the drug accusations — was packed with supporters that included other well-known reggae artists. The first trial ended in a mistrial last year after the jury deadlocked.
Shortly before his conviction in February, he won a Grammy for best reggae album for his work entitled "Before the Dawn."