TAMPA, FLA. (AP) - A federal judge sentenced Grammy-winning reggae singer Buju Banton to 10 years in prison Thursday, the lowest sentence legally allowed for his role in a large cocaine trafficking deal in 2009.
The 38-year-old Jamaican recording artist got a break when U.S. District Judge James S. Moody threw out a gun conviction, which would have added another five years to the minimum sentence. Banton’s attorney, David Markus, said with time already served and good behavior, he could be out in six years.
In a statement he wrote after the sentencing, Banton _ whose given name is Mark Myrie _ thanked family, fans and supporters from around the world who flooded the court file with letters of support.
“The days that lie ahead are filled with despair, but I have courage and grace and I’m hopeful, and that is sufficient to carry me through,” he said in the statement, which was read by Markus. “The man is not dead. Don’t call him a ghost.”
Banton, dressed in gray jail scrubs and shackled at the ankles, did not speak in court and did not react when Moody announced the sentence. The tall, thin, dreadlocked singer blew a kiss and waved to his subdued supporters as he was led away.
In his Caribbean homeland of Jamaica, radio stations played his songs nonstop Thursday, including “Not an Easy Road” and “Untold Stories.”
Jamaican disc jockey Bunny Goodison said the husky-voiced singer, who has long been a top star in his homeland with his brash reggae-rap hybrid of dancehall music and a more traditional reggae sound, was “the best at what he did during the last 20 years.”
“The loss of Buju for 10 years will be a tremendous blow to the industry,” Goodison said in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston. “The quality of his music and the message of his songs, which often dealt with the essence of being black, was unparalleled during his time.”
A jury found Banton guilty in February of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute cocaine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense and using a telephone to facilitate a drug trafficking offense. Moody threw out the gun charge, acknowledging that Banton had no idea others involved in the conspiracy were carrying guns, which was the basis for the charge. He was not convicted of carrying a weapon himself.
But prosecutor James Preston argued for a longer term, contending that the cocaine deal would not have gone down without Banton’s participation. Moody agreed that Banton’s participation was key to the deal but declined to increase the sentence.
Preston acknowledged it was a sad day for Banton’s fans but noted the distinction between the joyful reggae artist Buju Banton and the drug dealer Mark Myrie.
“He has brought this sadness to these people,” Preston said in court, acknowledging Banton’s supporters who filled the gallery. Preston declined to comment afterward.
Preston argued during trial that Banton portrayed himself as a broker of drug deals in several conversations with a confidential informant. Preston said Banton thought he was getting involved in a “no-risk” deal in which he would introduce a friend to a confidential informant and then collect money from drug transactions.
Prosecutors acknowledged that Banton did not put any money into the drug deal nor did he ever profit from it. Markus characterized his client as “a big talker” who admitted to trying to impress the confidential informant but wasn’t involved in any drug deal.