Ever since Buju Banton, one of Jamaica's most talented and controversial reggae singers, was convicted of cocaine trafficking and gun charges in 2011, there have been signs his trial was not on the up-and-up.
Photo by Jonathan Mannion Buju Banton remains behind bars on drug charges.
You may recall he was sentenced to ten years and lingers in federal lockup. That sentence was allowed to stand even though New Times first disclosed in 2012 that the jury forewoman, Terri Wright, had conducted outside research while the trial was ongoing. That's a violation of court procedures, so 19 months ago, a federal judge ordered the U.S. government to bring criminal contempt charges against Wright.
Virtually nothing happened. But now there's movement. A special prosecutor from outside the U.S. Department of Justice has been tasked with leading the case against the rogue juror and plans to meet with Banton's legal team, Wright, and the feds.
See also: Buju Banton Is Innocent
Though no one on the government end is talking much, the appointment of a special prosecutor in such a situation is significant. Such prosecutors are typically reserved for investigating government officials.
So is there a wider probe into potential misconduct that could move Banton a step closer to freedom?
"I hope," says defense attorney Charles Ogletree, who heads Harvard Law School's Institute for Race and Justice. He has been representing Banton (real name Mark Myrie) for the past year. "Here we have a wildcat juror, somebody who's going way beyond their authority and doing things that were completely inappropriate. This undermined the search for truth, which resulted, I think, in the conviction of [Banton]."
Wright's misdeeds extend far beyond doing internet research during the trial. She appears to have lied on several occasions, including during jury selection for Banton's trial, when she told the court she had served in only one previous trial. In reality she had served in seven.
Moreover, when the judge ordered Wright to turn over her computer for forensic analysis, Wright submitted a bogus hard drive. It was in the wake of this deception that the judge called for the contempt charges.
Lost in all of this mess is that Banton remains locked up. It has been six years since he was arrested. He has been through two trials -- the first ended in a hung jury and the second was corrupted by Wright. He has served more jail time than the men who were actually at the scene of the crime with stacks of cash and a gun trying to buy cocaine. (He was far away when the bust happened.)
The criminal informant who built the case against Buju had been deemed untrustworthy by a previous judge and had financial incentive to bend the truth in favor of the prosecution. One-third of the jurors have even admitted to New Times that they did not want to find the singer guilty on the gun charge, which carries a five-year sentence.
It's the jury forewoman's actions that most disturb Harvard's Ogletree, though. "What Terri Wright did is contrary to everything that anyone knows about jury trials," he says. "Jurors... take an oath, and they need to follow it."
Banton's case remains under review by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, where Ogletree recently presented an oral argument centering largely on all the unknowns surrounding Wright. Two weeks ago, the panel requested that all 11 judges of the court review the case. Another hearing is expected this spring.
"We have all the evidence going in our direction," Ogletree says. "We're ready."
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