Understanding The Buju Banton Case
After a full-day of deliberation on Friday (September 24), the 13 member panel of jurors in the U.S. federal drug conspiracy trial of dancehall/reggae artiste Buju Banton were yet to reach a verdict. Deliberations were adjourned for the weekend, and are set to resume tomorrow morning at 8:45 (EST). Local, regional and international interest in this case has been intense, and there has also been some amount of confusion surrounding several points of interest in the case and U.S. law in general. As such, Dancehall.Mobi put a few questions to Sarah Hsia, a U.S. attorney who consults with the Jamaican law firm GORDON | McGRATH. Our questions are in bold below, followed by her detailed responses.
1) Why are the jurors taking so long to come to a decision. What facts of the case might be tying them up?
SH: In criminal cases in the US, all 12 jurors (the 13th juror is an alternate and does not participate in deliberations unless, as has happened with this case, one of the jurors is excused) must unanimously agree on whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty. In order for them to find Mr. Myrie guilty, all 12 jurors must believe that he is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” (usually interpreted as more than 95% sure). It is really difficult to get 12 strangers to agree on anything! And in this case, because the prosecution did not have any direct evidence linking Mr. Myrie to the money or the drugs, the case really depends on whether the jury believes the prosecution’s witnesses, or the defense’s witnesses. In other words, it’s a “he said-she said” situation.
The prosecution’s case relies heavily on the testimony of its informant, Mr. Johnson, as well as on Mr. Thomas and Mr. Mack, Mr. Myrie’s co-defendants. The jury might not believe these witnesses, because each of them potentially has an ulterior motive for making their statements: the informant, because he is being paid by the government, and the co-defendants, because they have made plea deals with the government. In other words, the prosecution’s witnesses are not innocent bystanders. On the other hand, the prosecution has Mr. Myrie on tape engaging in acts that could indicate that he was involved in the drug deal. Will the jury believe Mr. Myrie’s testimony over Mr. Johnson, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Mack? This is probably why the deliberations are still ongoing.
2) Do the jurors have to reach a verdict within a set time or could this go on indefinitely?
SH: There is no set time for the jurors to reach a verdict; however, at some point, if they really cannot reach a unanimous decision, they will declare themselves deadlocked, and the judge must declare a mistrial. The government could then decide to retry its case against Buju. This would mean he would have to stay in jail pending the retrial.
3) How many of the jurors need to ‘agree’ in order to arrive at a verdict?
SH: In the United States, all 12 jurors must unanimously agree on a verdict.
4) If he’s found not guilty, what happens next (given that he’s not an American .. Will they deport him?)?
SH: I understand that just after he was arrested, the US revoked his visa. This means that even if he is acquitted of the charges pending against him, he will be deported to Jamaica.
5) If he’s found guilty, what happens next? Can he appeal? Does it make sense for him to appeal? How far ‘up’ can he take the appeal?
SH: If Mr. Myrie is found guilty, he can appeal. Given his immigration status, he would have to stay in jail pending the appeal. According to a report in the Jamaica Observer newspaper, the U.S. Government reportedly offered him a plea deal sentence of two years. If this is true, since the appeal process could easily take another year or more, he might decide to take the plea deal and just serve the two years rather than spend another year in jail and still risk ending up with a sentence of 20 years to life. However, a felony conviction would severely curtail his ability to tour as an artiste in the future, as many countries will deny visas to convicted felons (as we saw with Paris Hilton in Japan recently).
6) If found not guilty, will he still be able to visit and work (perform, tours etc.) in the United States?
SH: He would not be able to return to the United States without a visa. Either way, his touring career will likely take a huge blow.
7) If found not guilty, can he be retried at a later date (for e.g. If the prosecution finds new evidence)?
SH: No. In the U.S., there is something called “double jeopardy”, which means that if a defendant is found not guilty of a crime, he may not be retried for the same or similar crime.
8.) Please explain this whole concept of conspiracy as it relates to U.S. Law and this particular case.
SH: In the U.S., a conspiracy to commit a crime is committed when a defendant agrees with one or more people to commit a crime, and one of them actually commits the crime (it doesn’t matter which one). In other words, if you and I agree to rob a bank, and you actually go rob the bank without me, I would still be guilty of conspiracy. I understand that the jury asked the Judge on Friday afternoon whether a crime was actually committed in the warehouse when Mr. Myrie’s co-defendants were arrested, and the Judge responded yes. That means that the jury is most likely still trying to decide whether Mr. Myrie agreed with his co-defendants to commit the crime for which they were arrested. We know that the prosecution has Mr. Myrie on tape engaging in acts that could indicate that he knew about the drug deal. But did he agree to commit a crime with Mr. Mack and Mr. Thomas? That is the big question.
9) This trial proceeded rapidly (went to the jurors for deliberation within 4 days). Is this the normal pace for a trial like this in the U.S. Courts?
SH: The speed of a trial depends largely on how complicated the case is, how much evidence there is, and what the lawyers’ strategies are. The pace of this trial was actually pretty quick, I thought, which either means that the prosecution is very confident in their case, or that their case is weak for lack of evidence. One possibility is that even though their case was weak, the prosecution is gambling that Mr. Myrie would rather take a conviction and a relatively brief prison sentence, rather than risk more than 20 years in jail.
10) Do you think it’s a good sign (for either the defence or the prosecution) that the jury deliberations are taking so long?
SH: It is impossible to say either way! Jury deliberations depend so much on factors such as the personalities of the jurors, and their personal experiences and prejudices; it is entirely possible that two different juries seeing the same evidence could return different verdicts! Someone who lost their job, for example, could feel really bitter towards a government informant who was making an enormous amount of money for being involved in crime. Or a juror who has a dominant personality can sometimes railroad weaker jurors into agreeing with them.
However, in my experience, jurors are typically eager to finish jury service and get back to their lives and their jobs. If the jury was close to a unanimous verdict, I think that it is likely that they would have finished deliberations on Friday, so they wouldn’t need to return on Monday. The fact that they are continuing deliberations on Monday means that it is not a clear cut case. But, it is also possible that a juror who was ‘on the fence’ on Friday, could have thought about it all weekend, and reached a decision. So it could all be resolved on Monday morning.