Since his arrest on dubious drug charges back in 2009, reggae superstar Buju Banton has been caught up in a rolling legal circus.
His first federal trial closed with hung jury. A second ended with a guilty verdict and a ten-year sentence; the follow-up appeals go-around might land the defendant an additional five years on a gun charge.
Now, Buju's lawyers are pushing for a new trial altogether, largely thanks to information first dragged out into the open by a series of New Times articles by former Staff Writer Chris Sweeney. Their main contention is that jurors were doing their own research about the case during the original proceedings -- a big no-no.
Back in October, New Times published an interview with former Buju jury foreperson Terri Wright. The Tampa resident admitted she did after-hours work on the case to become better informed with the legal issues in play.
In an exclusive interview with New Times, Wright says she
researched certain aspects of the case to have a better grasp of them
when deliberation came around. "I would get in the car, just write my
notes down so I could remember, and I would come home and do the
research," she says.
"They give you the instructions not to go online and, you know, make an
opinion. I tried to follow that as close as possible," Wright says,
followed by a laugh. "I don't think what I found out would have changed
how I thought."
For Buju's legal team, that admission was a greenlight to file for mistrial. In December, Federal Judge James Moody called a hearing to investigate the claims.
On the stand, Wright reportedly tried backpedaling from her statements in the paper, telling the court she actually did the research after the trial. Former New Times staffer Sweeney, who was also subpoenaed at the hearing, produced a recording of the interview confirming the accuracy of the article's quotes.
One of Buju's attorneys, Imhotep Alkebu-lan, says the juror's behavior shows Buju didn't get the fair trial he deserved. "It would be our argument that, one: She's the foreperson of the jury. And two: We believe she disclosed her research to other members of the jury," he says. "So if this is the lone juror the court believes conducted outside research, we would argue that would be grounds for a new trial."
But there was also evidence given at the hearing pointing to more problematic sh*t floating in the jury pool.
A second juror testified at the hearing that she overheard a different juror telling others about her illegal homework. That means another juror in additional to Wright may also have been defying the court's instructions.
With that new possibility, Moody has ordered another hearing for February 19. Nine additional former jurors have been subpoenaed to appear. Wright has also been ordered to bring along her computer for a examination of what she accessed and when.
And there's more side drama.
At the December hearing, federal prosecutors produced a text message Wright sent Sweeney after his reporting went live, apparently a last-minute ass-covering explaining she had misunderstood his questions and didn't do research until after the trial.
But Wright had been subpoenaed by the judge, not the prosecution, which would bar each side from speaking with the witness beforehand. How then did the prosecution get the text message? Buju's attorneys filed motions last week asking for records from the state about possible off-limits communication with the juror.
And Buju? "He's eager that justice be done and he be granted a new trial," Alkebu-Ian says.
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