OCALA, Florida (Reuters) - A "very sorry" Wesley Snipes, star of the "Blade" movies, was sentenced to three years in prison on Thursday for willfully failing to file U.S. income tax returns for 1999 through 2001.
Snipes was convicted in February on three misdemeanor counts. U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges handed down the maximum sentence and said he felt it was important to create a general deterrent against tax defiance.
"I am very sorry for my mistakes and errors," Snipes told the judge. "This will never happen again."
He read a prepared statement, describing himself as an "idealist, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritual-seeking artist" who epitomized the expression "mo' money, mo' problems."
His lawyers tried to give the court three envelopes with checks totaling $5 million, but the judge and prosecutor said they could not accept the payments. An Internal Revenue Service agent collected the money during a recess.
The judge said prison officials would notify Snipes when to begin serving his sentence. Snipes said he would appeal the verdict but prosecutors vowed to oppose any request to allow him to remain free on bond while the appeal is pending.
Prosecutors said Snipes had earned more than $38 million since 1999 but still had not filed tax returns for the years 1999 through 2007 or paid any taxes prior to Thursday.
They accused Snipes of presenting himself as a victim and called the checks a "grandstanding move" that would turn out to be only a fraction of what he owes the IRS.
They said the notoriety of the case presented a "singular opportunity" to deter tax crimes nationwide.
Snipes was acquitted on two felony charges of filing false claims and fraud in seeking millions of dollars of refunds in other tax years.
The judge did not fine him but the IRS still could levy penalties and interest charges in addition to the taxes owed.
Snipes brought character references from actors Denzel Washington and Woody Harrelson. His lawyer, Linda Moreno, said Snipes had led "an otherwise exemplary life" and had hired reputable tax professionals to help him resolve his tax liability and make amends.
She said Snipes owed less than $400,000 in taxes for the three years related to the convictions and should not be jailed.
Moreno cited the cases of former Washington mayor Marion Barry and singer/actor Marc Anthony, who avoided prison after failing to file tax returns, and singer Willie Nelson, who remained free despite owing $17 million in back taxes.
Co-defendant Eddie Ray Kahn, a longtime tax protester who coached clients of his American Rights Litigators on how to beat the tax system, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Co-Defendant Douglas Rosile, who prosecutors called a "defrocked certified public accountant," was sentenced to 4-1/2 years for his part in the scheme. Both were convicted of conspiracy and tax fraud.
Prosecutors said Kahn and Rosile were "incorrigible tax offenders" whose anti-tax schemes caused "enormous damage to the administration of our tax system." They said at least nine other Kahn customers had been convicted of criminal tax violations and two had been indicted.
Editing by Jane Sutton and John O'Callaghan