Grammy-winning reggae singer Buju Banton was convicted Tuesday of conspiring to set up a cocaine deal in 2009, a verdict that elicited anguish and disbelief among supporters in a crowded courtroom and from other artists in his native Jamaica.
A federal jury deliberated for 11 hours over two days on the fate of Banton, who won a Grammy last week for best reggae album for his work entitled "Before the Dawn." He was found guilty of three of four charges, and his attorney said he's facing at least 15 years in prison.
The 37-year-old Banton, whose given name is Mark Myrie, remains wildly popular in Jamaica, and the 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.
The tall, dreadlocked singer didn't react when a clerk read the verdict on Tuesday. He stood, hugged his attorneys, then turned around and blew kisses to his supporters in the courtroom and told them: "Thank you." A woman yelled out "We love you, Buju!" as U.S. marshals led him away.
"Obviously we are all upset and disappointed and emotional," said Banton's attorney, David Markus of Miami. "The only person who seems to be OK is Buju. He told us he was happy that he fought, knowing he was innocent."
Markus said he plans to appeal the conviction and will file a motion to try to get Banton out of jail on bond in the meantime.
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. He was acquitted of attempted possession with the intent to distribute cocaine.
No date has been set for his sentencing.
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 later 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 said his client is "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 that the informant badgered him after they met on a trans-Atlantic flight in July 2009 and insisted that 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.
In Banton's native Jamaica, radio stations played his songs nonstop Tuesday, especially "Untold Stories" and "Not an Easy Road."
Rapper Tony Rebel, a close friend who recorded with Banton, called it a sad day for young people who looked up to him.
The verdict marks "the saddest day for reggae and dancehall," rapper Michael "Power Man" Davy said, adding he was "sad as a Rastaman and a Jamaican."
Singer Junior Reid called it a conspiracy against reggae artists.
"With Buju gone, a big piece of reggae get chop off," he said.