OCALA, Fla. - Wesley Snipes was sentenced to three years in prison on tax charges Thursday, a victory for prosecutors who sought to make an example of the action star by aggressively pursuing the maximum penalty.
Snipes' lawyers had spent much of the day in court offering dozens of letters from family members, friends — even fellow actors Woody Harrelson and Denzel Washington — attesting to the good character of the "Blade" star and asking for leniency. They argued he should get only probation because his three convictions were all misdemeanors and the actor had no previous criminal record.
But U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges said Snipes exhibited a "history of contempt over a period of time" for U.S. tax laws, and granted prosecutors the three year sentence they requested — one year for each of Snipes' convictions of willfully failing to file a tax return.
"In my mind these are serious crimes, albeit misdemeanors," Hodges said.
Snipes apologized while reading from a written statement for his "costly mistakes," but never mentioned the word taxes.
"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance," Snipes said.
Snipes said his wealth and celebrity attracted "wolves and jackals like flies are attracted to meat." He called himself "well-intentioned, but miseducated."
Snipes was the highest-profile criminal tax target in years, and prosecutors called for a heavy sentence to deter others from trying to obstruct the IRS. The government alleged Snipes made at least $13.8 million for the years in question and owed $2.7 million in back taxes.
Snipes was acquitted in February of five additional charges, including felony tax fraud and conspiracy. Snipes' co-defendants, Douglas P. Rosile and Eddie Ray Kahn, were convicted on both those counts. Kahn, who refused to defend himself in court, was sentenced to 10 years, while Rosile received 54 months. Both will serve three years of supervised release. Snipes will serve one year of supervised release.
Snipes and Rosile remain free and will be notified when they are to surrender to authorities.
Kahn was the founder of American Rights Litigators, and a successor group, Guiding Light of God Ministries, that purported to help members legally avoid paying taxes. Rosile, a former accountant who lost his licenses in Ohio and Florida, prepared Snipes' paperwork.
Snipes maintained in a years-long battle with the IRS he did not have to pay taxes, using fringe arguments common to "tax protesters" who say the government has no legal right to collect. After joining Kahn's group, the government said Snipes instructed his employees to stop paying their own taxes and sought $11 million in 1996 and 1997 taxes he legally paid.
Prosecutors sought to justify the maximum sentence by raising those and other details from the IRS investigation, as well as a tax loss even for years in which Snipes was acquitted of failing to file a return. Such "relevant conduct" is allowed by law for a judge's consideration at sentencing.
Criminal tax prosecutions are relatively rare — usually the cases are handled in civil court, where the government has a lower burden of proof. Prosecutors said Snipes' case was important to send a message to would-be tax protesters not to test the government.