TAMPA, Florida (AP):
Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton was an established drug trafficker before the singer allegedly tried to buy cocaine from an undercover officer in Florida last year, attorneys for the United States government said yesterday at the beginning of his drug trial.
"Do you have any contacts where I can get cocaine?" Banton asked a government informant named Alexander Johnson in a recorded conversation, Assistant US Attorney James Preston told a jury in a Tampa federal court.
The singer was looking for "more, new and different money through a new conspiracy he was shopping for" in addition to drug deals he already had funded, Preston said.
Banton, 37, whose real name is Mark Myrie, has been held without bail since his arrest last December on charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine and carrying a firearm during the course of a drug-trafficking crime.
The four-time Grammy nominee faces a possible life sentence if convicted.
Banton's attorney, David Markus, insisted his client did not participate in any conspiracy to sell cocaine, even if he did talk with the informant about drug deals.
"Yes, Buju talked a lot," Markus said in opening statements. "Yes, he tasted that cocaine. No, he wasn't a drug dealer. He wasn't part of the deal."
Markus said Banton will testify in his trial.
"He's got nothing to hide," Markus said. "The truth is on his side in this case because he didn't do anything."
Banton and an associate allegedly negotiated with an informant to buy the cocaine. Along with a third man, they allegedly met with an undercover officer in Sarasota in early December to buy the drug. The informant told Drug Enforcement Administration agents that he also saw the singer inspecting the cocaine, tasting the drug with his finger.
The December 8 meeting was captured on video.
The two co-defendants have pleaded guilty and have agreed to testify against Banton.
Banton's using his finger to taste the cocaine in the Sarasota warehouse in December was "the worst mistake of his life," Markus told the jury.
He will try to prove that Banton was a victim of entrapment.
Markus told the jury that Johnson had imported cocaine into the US from Colombia until he was caught in 1994.
Johnson cooperated with authorities, served three years in prison and has earned US$3.3 million by working for several US law-enforcement agencies, including more than US$50,000 for the Banton case.
"Alexander Johnson has never had a job," Markus said. "Instead, he's been setting people up."
Preston said Banton was eager to work with Johnson, whom he met on a flight from Spain to Miami at the end of his European tour last summer.
"I give you money," Banton said, according to Preston. "You buy, you sell, give me money."