Snipes cleared of fraud

Times Staff Writer

A federal jury in Florida acquitted actor Wesley Snipes of felony charges of tax fraud and conspiracy Friday but found the former high-profile star guilty on three misdemeanor charges of failing to file a tax return.

Snipes, who starred in such box-office hits as “White Men Can’t Jump,” “New Jack City” and the “Blade” trilogy, could serve up to three years in prison. He faced up to 16 years in prison if convicted on all counts, which included six counts of failing to file a tax return.

A sentencing date hasn’t been set.

Snipes and two co-defendants were indicted in October 2006. The government alleged that he tried to defraud the Internal Revenue Service by filing false tax returns for 1996 and 1997 that claimed a total of $11.4 million in refunds. The IRS also contended the actor didn’t file tax returns for 1999 through 2004, despite earning millions of dollars during that period.


The jury in Ocala began deliberations late Tuesday after Snipes’ attorneys rested their case without calling any witnesses. The defense, which had promised to bring a parade of Hollywood celebrities to the stand, including Sylvester Stallone and Goldie Hawn, said it called no witnesses because the government didn’t prove its case during nearly two weeks of testimony.

Snipes’ co-defendants, a longtime Florida tax protester and an accountant hired by Snipes as a consultant, were convicted of tax fraud and conspiracy.

Although the jury reached a split decision against Snipes, the government was quick to claim a victory in its campaign to prosecute Americans who claim the IRS has no authority to collect taxes.

The verdict “represents the latest in a long string of criminal convictions by the Justice Department and the IRS against tax protesters,” Assistant Atty. Gen. Nathan J. Hochman of the Justice Department’s Tax Division said in a statement.

But Snipes’ lead attorney, Robert Bernhoft, noted Friday that his client was convicted on only the three lesser misdemeanor counts while winning acquittal on the more serious felony charges, a meager return for what was seen as an important case in the government’s effort against tax evaders.

“Protest is not a felony crime in America; disagreement, even disagreement with the IRS, is not fraud,” Bernhoft said.

The three defendants based their defense in part on a section of U.S. tax code that empowers the federal government to tax the overseas earnings of its citizens. Some tax protesters infer from that language that only foreign earnings are taxable and money earned in the United States is not.

Snipes, once a highly bankable Hollywood star, has been dealing with setbacks in his personal and professional life.

Snipes in recent years had lost his Florida home to foreclosure, was sued for $2 million by his own talent agencies and faced a paternity suit filed by a woman claiming she had sex with the actor in a Chicago crack house -- a case he ultimately won when a DNA test proved he was not the father.

Snipes’ acting career has been in decline. Although he still regularly gets work, his roles have been in straight-to-video features such as “The Detonator” and “Hard Luck.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.