Today in Tampa, federal Judge James Moody made a dramatic decision in the ongoing legal drama of Buju Banton. The bench tossed a gun conviction that the federal government stuck on the reggae superstar, mainly thanks to New Times having reported on the highly illegal extracurricular activities of one of the case's original jurors.
Moody ruled that former juror Terri Wright had lied to the court about whether she researched the Banton case while serving on the panel. Wright first admitted stepping outside the bounds to former New Times staffer Chris Sweeney.
She later tried to backpedal from the statements, but Moody ruled Wednesday that she lied when later trying to cover her ass. Along with tossing out the conviction, Moody instructed the government to bring contempt of court charges against Wright.
"This shows how important good reporting is," David Oscar Markus, an attorney who previously represented Banton, told New Times. "The judge credited Chris' reporting in making his decision. He reported accurately what she said, and it really was the turning point for Buju on the gun charge."
Sweeney's own testimony at a hearing in December helped settle the matter. The former-New Times writer played for the judge a recording of his conversation with Wright in which she talked openly about doing research during the trial.
The prosecution could press the gun charge issue. "They can decide to retry him," Markus says. But "I strongly doubt that they will do that."
Ejecting the gun charge knocks five years off Banton's sentence, but he's still serving a ten-year run for his part in a cocaine sale. Today, Moody also ruled against a defense motion for a retrial on the drug charge, but the findings on the gun issue could reposition the defense for a future appeal.
"All in all, today was a very good day," Markus says.
To get a grip on the full story, read Sweeney's reporting series:
His initial story explained how Banton and a friend were at the scene of a cocaine deal. A confidential informant who has been paid millions of dollars by the government to rat people out arranged the deal -- and had a financial incentive to do so. (Ultimately, he was paid $50,00 for ensnaring Banton.) Banton maintained he was just a passive observer along for the ride. Because of a legal maneuver called the Pinkerton rule, which makes a conspirator criminally liable for offenses committed by a co-conspirator, Buju was charged with possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense -- even though it was another man involved with the deal, not Buju, who had a gun.
Sweeney later tracked down jurors in the case, including Wright, who mentioned that she had done online research during the case, and she mentioned the Pinkerton rule. Because it's unclear how much her input may have influenced the outcome of the case, this opened the door for a mistrial.
Wright later made conflicting statements about whether she had done research before or after the trial, and when a forensic computer expert was ordered to analyze her computer, she was found to have submitted an alternate hard drive for examination.
She now faces a fine and up to six months in prison.
Chokwe Lumumba, Banton's new attorney, told the Tampa Bay Times that the judge "should have thrown out the whole case."
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