TAMPA, Fla. - 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.
A jury found him 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.
Markus contended that Banton deserved a lower sentence because of his limited participation in the drug buy, his charitable work in Jamaica and his otherwise clean record.
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.
Much of the case hinged on meetings and phone calls that were video- and audiotaped by the informant, who was working with the Drug Enforcement Administration - and who made $50,000 in commission after the bust.
In one video, Banton could be seen tasting cocaine in a Sarasota warehouse on Dec. 8, 2009. But he was not present during the actual drug deal on Dec. 10 that led two others to be arrested. Those two men later pleaded guilty.
Banton testified that the informant badgered him after they met on a trans-Atlantic flight in July 2009 and insisted they meet to set up a cocaine purchase. He said he was so uninterested in the informant's proposals that after they met twice, Banton didn't return the man's phone calls for months.
Markus said he plans to appeal.
"This fight is not over," Markus said. "We will keep fighting for him. Mark Myrie is my brother, and I'm going to keep fighting until they tell me to stop."
Among the dozens of letters of support in the court file were those from several of Banton's 15 children wrote, a Jamaican government official, an NBA player, other reggae artists and actor Danny Glover, who called Banton a "role model, philanthropist and spiritual leader in the community."
"Your honor, Mark Myrie is not a drug dealer," Glover wrote. "Society would not benefit from his incarceration."
Banton's oldest son, also named Mark Myrie, wrote that his father "puts hard work, sweat and tears into his music and that is what (he) `puts on the table,' it has never been drugs....The situation is just an example of our mere imperfections as people, being at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Banton remains wildly popular in Jamaica, and his trial - his second over the drug accusations - was packed with supporters that included other well-known reggae artists. The first trial ended in a mistrial last year after the jury deadlocked.
Shortly before his conviction in February, he won a Grammy for best reggae album for his work entitled "Before the Dawn."