- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

TAMPA, FLA. (AP) - Grammy-winning reggae singer Buju Banton told a jury Wednesday that he’s never been a drug dealer and that he was “just talking” to a government informant about a possible drug deal.

“I’m very ashamed of myself,” Banton told the court. “I know it looks bad. I know it sounds bad. But I was not part of any drug deal.”

The Jamaican star testified in federal court in Tampa that the informant _ Alexander Johnson _ badgered him after they met on a trans-Atlantic flight in July 2009 and insisted that they meet to set up a cocaine buy.

Banton, whose given name is Mark Myrie, said that he was so uninterested in Johnson’s proposals that after they met twice, Banton didn’t return the man’s phone calls for months.

“He did everything he could to lure me in,” Banton said about Johnson, who admittedly made $50,000 from the government after Banton’s arrest.

Banton is on trial on four cocaine-related charges _ including conspiracy with intent to possess and distribute _ for the second time in Tampa federal court. The jury deadlocked in his first trial. If convicted, Banton faces up to life in prison.

Prosecutors and Banton agree on one thing: Banton never put any money into any drug deal, nor did he make any money.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents did record the singer inspecting cocaine and tasting the drugs with his finger on Dec. 8, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Preston said. His co-defendant, Ian Thomas, gave the undercover officer $135,000 on Dec. 10. He has since been arrested and pleaded guilty to drug charges. Another man, James Mack, was also named as a co-defendant; he has also pleaded guilty.

Banton was not present for the Dec. 10 drug deal _ he was at home in South Florida _ but he “took a substantial step” in committing the crime by helping negotiate the deal, Preston said.

Earlier Wednesday, Banton’s attorney, David Markus, asked the judge to dismiss two of the charges, saying that U.S. prosecutors have no evidence that Banton used a communication device to commit the crime and had no connection to a gun that was recovered in the car of James Mack.

Banton testified that the first time he heard of Mack was after he was arrested and locked in the Pinellas County Jail.

Banton said a man walked up to him in jail and said, “My name is James Mack, and I’m your co-defendant.”

The singer _ whose recent work, “Before the Dawn,” won a Grammy on Sunday for best reggae album _ told the jury about growing up in poverty in Kingston, Jamaica, and how he worked his way to the top of his musical genre.

Banton, a father of 15, said in earlier taped recordings with the informant that he was “stressed out,” and noted that he needed money to pay for his kids’ school tuition.

Prosecutor Preston hammered Banton during cross examination, saying that the 37-year-old singer went out of his way to portray himself as a drug financier.

“You gave (the informant) every reason to believe you were a player in the cocaine game,” Preston said.

Banton shot back: “We were both trying to impress each other. I was just making things up. I was just talking crap. I talk too much.”

Two other Jamaican musicians, Stephen Marley and Gramps Morgan, testified on Banton’s behalf Wednesday and said their friend definitely spoke with swagger _ but is a hardworking musician and beloved musician in his native Jamaica who never had contact with cocaine.

“He’s a big talker,” said Marley, who is the son of reggae legend Bob Marley.

Said Morgan: “Buju’s message and his music speaks for the poor.”

Closing arguments are expected Thursday.

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