OCALA, Florida (Reuters) - Actor Wesley Snipes, star of the “Blade” movie series, was found guilty of three misdemeanors by a U.S. court on Friday for failing to file tax returns but was acquitted of more serious charges.
The 45-year-old actor faces up to three years in prison, prosecutors said.
Snipes had been charged with six misdemeanor counts of failing to file tax returns and felony counts of tax fraud and conspiracy, and could have faced up to 16 years behind bars.
The trial, before a jury in Ocala, 80 miles northwest of Orlando, took place in the rural township because it was near the celebrity enclave of Isleworth, where prosecutors say Snipes lived at the time of the suspected fraud.
Prosecutors had alleged that Snipes failed to file tax returns for the years 1999 to 2004 and sought refunds totaling more than $11 million for taxes paid in 1996 and 1997. He was convicted of not filing returns for three of the years.
Snipes’ lawyer, Robert Bernhoft, said the actor didn’t file his tax returns because he was waiting for the Internal Revenue Service to answer his inquiries about the need to file them, and always stood “ready to pay and file.”
Bernhoft said Snipes got no meaningful response from the IRS to his requests for interviews, conferences, appeals and audits.
Snipes’ co-defendants, well-known anti-tax activist Eddie Ray Kahn and former accountant Douglas Rosile, were both found guilty of conspiracy and filing false claims for tax refunds for Snipes and could face up to 10 years in prison.
Smiling broadly as he emerged from the Ocala courthouse, Snipes said “it does feel good, it feels great” when asked about the verdict.
Prosecutor Robert O’Neill said the actor could still face jail time, however.
“Filing tax returns is not optional. It is a legal requirement,” O’Neill said in a statement. “Mr. Snipes now faces up to three years in a federal prison for his willful failure to comply with the law,” he said.
Sentencing was set for a later date pending a pre-sentence investigation in which authorities said they would determine how much Snipes owed in back taxes.
“Wesley Snipes (is) committed to making all the amends he’s required to do,” Bernhoft said.
“The jury determined there was no fraudulent attempt and it was a great day,” he said.
The case against Snipes was among the most prominent tax prosecutions in decades. It called to mind other cases pitting tax collectors against well-known Americans including singer, songwriter Willie Nelson, baseball great Pete Rose and billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley.
Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Beech