Reggae Star Buju Banton Released From Prison After Florida Drug Case

Jamaican reggae icon Buju Banton was living in South Florida in 2009 when he was picked up on gun and attempted cocaine-possession charges, but after reviewing the evidence in the case, New Times writer Chris Sweeney found that Banton had likely been set up by a corrupt informant. That reporting led to a Tampa judge's decision to throw out Banton's gun-possession convictions.

But the cocaine-possession charges stuck, and in 2011 he was sentenced to ten years, which was reduced slightly because of time served. The stretch is up today, and a prison official at McRae Correctional Institution in Georgia confirmed Banton will be freed.

Whether he'll return to playing music is unclear, but before he was imprisoned, Banton was arguably the biggest reggae star in Jamaica since Bob Marley — though he was also infamous for performing a song about murdering gay people. (He denounced "hate-speech" years later.) The Guardian reported today he'll return to Jamaica some time "this weekend."

The megastar's legal troubles began nearly a decade ago when he was living in the Miami area. On December 8, 2009, Banton (born Mark Myrie) drove from his duplex in Tamarac to Sarasota for what was supposed to be a day spent on a boat with some friends. Instead, Banton says, a "friend" — Alex "Junior" Johnson — drove him into a warehouse, where a third person whipped open a car's trunk to reveal 20 kilograms of cocaine. A friend handed Banton a bit of cocaine on a blade for him to taste. Banton then sat in a chair as Junior and the others negotiated terms of a drug deal. Junior and Banton eventually drove home to Broward County.

The next day, authorities busted everyone involved and apprehended Banton at his home in Tamarac. The men in the Sarasota warehouse were found with the coke, $135,000 in cash, and a gun and were charged with trying to ferry the cocaine to Georgia. Banton was charged with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense. He was hit with the gun charge despite the fact that the gun was found in Sarasota in someone else's possession.

In reality, as New Times reported in 2012, "Junior" was little more than a federal snitch with a long rap sheet, a history of shady activities, and a financial incentive to entrap subjects in major crimes. Banton stressed the entire time that Junior set him up and that he'd been a victim of entrapment. (Banton even found out he'd won a Grammy the same day he was set to go to trial.) He was never actually shown to have orchestrated a drug deal or offered anyone money. The jury also was never told that "Junior" was getting paid by the government to nab alleged criminals. Despite those concerns, the musician in 2011 was found guilty on three of four charges.

That, however, was not the end of the case. In 2012, a juror told New Times reporter Chris Sweeney that she had researched Banton online while she was working on the case — if true, that represented a clear violation of court rules. A Tampa judge eventually declared a mistrial and threw out Banton's gun charge. In June 2013, Judge James S. Moody Jr. told the court to bring contempt charges against juror Terri Wright, who told Sweeney that, after days in court, she "would come home and do research" on Banton on the internet. Banton's attorney at the time, Chokwe Lumumba Sr., told reporters he wished Banton's entire case had been thrown out at that point.

If Banton returns home to Jamaica, he might work with nonprofit organizations he funded before his incarceration. Among those were charity organizations aimed at cutting down the HIV transmission rate across the nation.

David Markus, Banton's former lawyer, told New Times today he's glad to hear the musician is finally able to put the ordeal behind him. Markus said that, even though he no longer represents Banton, the pair "went to battle together" in multiple trials and have since remained in touch.

"It's such a relief that he’s getting out," Markus said. "This was such a really unjust prosecution and sentence. Buju is as talented as they come. Luckily, he’ll be able to get back to his music now. Everyone is looking forward to him seeing his career take off again, which we expect to happen."

He added, "You'll probably be able to hear the party all the way from Jamaica."

Update: Here's a clip of Banton boarding his plane home:

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.