Early in 2009, legendary reggae performer Buju Banton stood behind a microphone at his Gargamel Studio in Kingston, Jamaica, and belted out what now seems to be a frighteningly prophetic tune: "Innocent."
"Jah knows I'm innocent. Jah knows I'm innocent," the track opens, the 39-year-old artist's gravelly sing-song style stretching the last syllable for emphasis. After the brass section kicks in, he wails, "The forces have gathered, for what I don't know, I really don't know."
A few months after recording the song, Buju was 600 miles away from his homeland, loafing around his Tamarac duplex in pajamas. Then there was a knock at the door. From outside, a female voice claimed to be a graduate student doing research for a dissertation on reggae. After pulling on some shorts and opening the door, the five-time Grammy-nominated singer and father of 13 was arrested on federal drug and gun charges.
The forces who had gathered against him in this scenario were a shady Colombian snitch once caught bringing 700 kilos of blow into Florida and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Now, nearly three years after Buju — real name Mark Myrie — was sent to a federal prison outside Tampa, his case continues to drag along. But that hasn't slowed his musical success. Last year, he won a Grammy for an album, Before the Dawn, that was completed behind bars. This past July, he won an International Reggae and World Music Award for "Jah Army," a song on which he collaborated with Stephen and Damian Marley. The track has amassed nearly 5 million views on YouTube.
In August, when famed reggae radio personality Clinton Lindsay published a list of the 50 most important reggae albums of all time to coincide with Jamaica's 50th year of independence, Banton's 1995 'Til Shiloh was the only contemporary record to make the cut.
"Almost every other person in Jamaica knows who Buju Banton is, so of course people miss Buju," says Markus Myrie, Banton's 18-year-old son, who has recently started producing and collaborating with well-known artists, including Bounty Killer. "His performances, his big stage shows — I think that's what people miss most."
Rather than tour and perform, Buju has recently been spending his days at the Federal Correctional Institution in South Miami-Dade, chipping away at a decadelong sentence and penning lyrics to new songs he won't be able to record for years. And it now seems inevitable that he'll be forced to spend even more time behind bars than anyone — even the trial judge and jurors — anticipated.
On October 30, he will return to a federal courtroom in Tampa, where Judge James Moody is expected to add five years to his sentence on a dubious firearm charge.
But exclusive interviews conducted by New Times with three jurors reveal that the reggae star nearly walked free after a 2011 retrial. Most alarming: All three jurors interviewed say the gun charge is without merit. "When we first got back into the room," recalls juror Brian Postlewait, an IT specialist, "it was ten to two for not guilty."
At first, Postlewait voted against conviction during deliberations, which lasted three days in February 2011. In a backroom of Tampa's courthouse, the jurors pored over the instructions, dissected the transcripts, watched and rewatched grainy surveillance video captured by the DEA, and vigorously debated the four charges — attempting to possess and distribute cocaine, conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine, using a phone to facilitate a drug-trafficking offense, and possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense. They listed each count on a whiteboard accompanied by check boxes and consulted with the judge to clarify a few aspects of the case.
Slowly, momentum shifted in favor of the prosecution. Ultimately, it was the video of Buju in a warehouse dabbing his tongue with cocaine that sealed his fate. Jury instructions required them to convict on the gun charges if they believed the conspiracy claims, Postlewait says: "Once we got him on the first main charge, the gun [charge] had to go with it... which was unfortunate."
It wasn't easy on anyone in the jury room. Marie Hodge, another juror from the Tampa area, said she was sick to her stomach. "This was a wonderful person with all this great talent," she says, referring to Buju. "This guy seemed more idiot than criminal."
On the other hand, Hodge was forced to swallow the fact that Alex Johnson, the informant who has earned roughly $3.5 million for snitching on people over the past 14 years, was little more than a "credible scumbag who can make drug deals and talk the talk" on behalf of the government, she says.
The jury found Buju guilty on three of the four charges, but when sentencing came around in June 2011, Judge Moody threw out the gun allegation, which carried a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. It seemed reasonable: Buju never met or spoke with James Mack, a man who was arrested after driving from Atlanta to Florida with $135,000 cash and a gun stashed in a hidden compartment within his car to buy five kilos of coke. In fact, Buju wasn't even at the drug bust, and it's still unclear whether he knew the deal was taking place.
After the gun count was dismissed, Buju was sentenced to ten years on the two remaining drug charges.
This summer, however, an Atlanta appeals court, at the behest of the federal prosecutor, overturned Moody's decision. The judge has few options but to add the mandatory five years to Buju's sentence later this month.
Even Susan Devlin, a bespectacled redhead and one of the two jurors who initially voted guilty, is queasy over the prospect of the reggae star's getting more time. "None of us thought that he had anything to do with [the gun]," she says. "When the judge threw it out, I thought, 'That's good,' because we really didn't want to charge him with the gun."
In light of these revelations from jurors, one can't help but wonder why the feds have gone to such extremes to lock up one of the most critically important voices to come out of Jamaica since Bob Marley. (Of course, Buju is also well-known for homophobic lyrics, which have angered almost as many people as his songs have pleased.)
Options are running out, but Chokwe Lumumba , Buju's newly appointed attorney, is already planning an appeal. "The result on the gun charge is obviously unjust. And I can see full well why the judge saw fit to throw it out," Lumumba says. "Buju wasn't even there when the gun was possessed. There's very flimsy evidence as far as we can see that he would have actually known what was going on."