Actor Wesley Snipes, star of such action movies as the “Blade” trilogy, was sentenced to three years in prison Thursday for failing to file income tax returns for three years.
U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges handed out the maximum penalty under law, brushing aside dozens of letters from family members and friends -- including fellow actors Woody Harrelson and Denzel Washington -- attesting to Snipes’ good character and asking for leniency.
Snipes was found guilty of the misdemeanors in February but acquitted of five other charges, including two felonies of tax fraud and conspiracy. The convictions for failing to file returns covered the years 1999 to 2001.
In court, Snipes, reading from a written statement, apologized for his “costly mistakes” but never mentioned the word “taxes.”
Douglas P. Rosile, a former tax advisor to Snipes, and veteran tax protester Eddie Ray Kahn were convicted of the two felony charges. Kahn was sentenced to 10 years, and Rosile was given 54 months.
Snipes and Rosile remain free and will be notified when they are to surrender to authorities, though lawyers said the process could take months.
Kahn, who already is in custody, is the founder of American Rights Litigators and Guiding Light of God Ministries, which purports to help members legally avoid paying taxes.
Snipes rose to Hollywood stardom in such box-office hits as “White Men Can’t Jump,” “New Jack City” and the “Blade” movies.
His celebrity could raise attention about tax defiance and deter protesters, said Assistant Atty. Gen. Nathan J. Hochman of the Justice Department’s tax division.
“The three-year sentence Mr. Snipes received today sends a loud and crystal-clear message to the tax defier community that if they engage in this illegal conduct, they can and will go to jail,” Hochman said.
Despite Snipes’ claims that he was taken advantage of, Hochman said the actor was a “disciple” of the tax defiance movement who understood that his actions were illegal.
“It’s more than just an accident. It occurred on numerous occasions over many different years,” Hochman said. “This wasn’t an innocent victim of ‘jackals.’ This is someone who willfully and knowingly participated.”
Before his sentencing, Snipes told the judge that his wealth and celebrity attracted “wolves and jackals like flies are attracted to meat,” and he called himself “well-intentioned but miseducated.”
“I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance,” Snipes said.
Neither Snipes nor his lawyers could be reached for comment Thursday.
Defense lawyers had argued that Snipes should get only probation because his three convictions were all misdemeanors and the actor had no criminal record.
Judge Hodges was unswayed, saying 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,” he said in passing sentence.
Criminal tax prosecutions are relatively rare. Usually the cases are handled in civil court, where the government has a lower burden of proof.
David A. Wilson, Rosile’s lawyer, called the sentence harsh.
“When you have somebody like Mr. Rosile or Mr. Snipes, who has no prior criminal record and is a first-time offender with a nonviolent offense, to be sentenced to prison for a not insignificant amount of time is pretty severe,” Wilson said. “The federal system is pretty unforgiving.”
When the sentence was read, Snipes had no reaction, Wilson said.
“He was extremely calm and collected. He didn’t flinch,” Wilson said. “He’s been remarkable in his demeanor -- humble, gracious. A nice guy without a hint of arrogance or defiance.”
At trial, prosecutors alleged that Snipes tried to defraud the Internal Revenue Service by trying to collect $11.4 million in fraudulent income tax refunds and failing to file returns for 1999 through 2004, despite earning millions of dollars during that period.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.