OCALA, Fla. – After haggling with revenue agents, criminal investigators and eventually U.S. prosecutors for almost a decade, Wesley Snipes finally caught them by surprise.
Hours before he was to be sentenced Thursday for failing to file income taxes he insisted he never had to pay, the action star cut the federal government three checks for $5 million, delivered in court.
So taken aback were prosecutors that they first declined the cash. But by the end of the day, the government took the money and more -- a maximum three-year sentence for its highest-profile criminal tax target in decades.
"The sentencing court sends the right message to the American taxpayer -- you've got to pay your taxes," U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill told reporters outside the usually quiet central Florida courthouse. "Rich, poor, it doesn't matter. We all pay our taxes."
Though Snipes was convicted of three counts of willfully failing to file returns, his trial was held by some as proof of victory for the tax protest movement. Snipes was acquitted of five other charges, including felony tax fraud and conspiracy, that would've exposed him to 13 more years in prison.
Criminal tax prosecutions are relatively rare -- usually the cases are handled in civil court, where the government has a lower burden of proof.
Snipes' attorneys argued the sentence was too stiff for a first-time offender convicted of three misdemeanors, and recommended he be given home detention and ordered to make public service announcements.
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.
"In my mind these are serious crimes, albeit misdemeanors," Hodges said.
The action star of the "Blade" trilogy, "White Men Can't Jump," "Jungle Fever" and other films hasn't filed a tax return since 1998, the government alleged. Snipes and the IRS still must determine how much he owes, plus interest and penalties. The government alleged Snipes made at least $13.8 million for the three years in question, owing at least $2.7 million in back taxes on them alone.
Snipes read aloud from a prepared apology, calling his actions "costly mistakes" but never mentioning the word "taxes." He said he was the victim of crooked advisers, a liability of wealth and celebrity that attract "wolves and jackals like flies are attracted to meat."
"I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance," Snipes said.
His lawyers said he was no threat to society, and offered three dozen letters from family members, friends and even fellow actors Woody Harrelson and Denzel Washington attesting to his compassion, intelligence and value as a mentor. They called four character witnesses Thursday, including television's Judge Joe Brown, who incited applause from the gallery by suggesting Snipes was no different than "mega-corporate entities" that legally avoid taxes.
Hodges twice halted the proceedings to quiet the crowd, threatening to clear everyone out if they made another outburst.
Snipes' co-defendants, Douglas P. Rosile and Eddie Ray Kahn, were convicted on both felony counts on which the actor was acquittal. Kahn, who refused to defend himself in court, was sentenced to the maximum 10 years, while Rosile received 4 1/2 years. Both will serve three years of supervised release.
Snipes and Rosile remain free and will be notified when they are to surrender to authorities. Defense attorney Carmen Hernandez signaled in court that Snipes would pursue an appeal.
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. Snipes was a dues-paying member of the organization, and Rosile, a de-licensed accountant, prepared Snipes' paperwork.
The actor maintained in a yearslong 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.
Defense attorneys Hernandez and Daniel Meachum said Snipes was unfairly targeted because he's famous. Meachum called prosecutors "big game hunters," selectively prosecuting the actor while Kahn's some 4,000 other clients remained free.
Hodges was not swayed.
"One of the main purposes which drives selective prosecution in tax cases is deterrence," the judge said, while denying it had anything to do with his sentence. "In some instances, that means those of celebrity stand greater risk of prosecution. But there's nothing unusual about it, nor is there anything unlawful about it. It's the way the system works."