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By KEVIN GRAHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published December 12, 2007
OCALA - Actor Wesley Snipes has a better shot at a fair trial in Ocala if his attorneys - as opposed to just the judge - have a chance to question potential jurors, his lawyers said Tuesday.
"Mr. Snipes has no doubt he can get a fair trial wherever he has a trial," said Robert G. Bernhoft, one of Snipes' defense attorneys. "He can get a fair trial in Ocala, but we want an opportunity to question jurors about their bias."
In court filings last month, Bernhoft said Ocala was too racist to yield a fair jury. Snipes wants the trial moved from Ocala to New York City, where he has a home.
Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges previously ruled against changing the location, but Snipes has again asked for the trial to be moved. The judge is expected to rule on that request soon.
In court Tuesday, Hodges denied a defense request to have jurors complete a questionnaire before the trial. The judge said he has always personally screened jurors in open court and would do the same for Snipes.
Sending a list of questions home with jurors gives them more time to think about calculated responses to avoid being chosen, Hodges said. Attorneys still have a chance to submit jury questions to the judge until the morning that jury selections begins.
Linda Moreno, who represented Sami Al-Arian at his terrorism-related trial and is a member of Snipes' defense team, asked the judge to consider giving the defense two hours to cross-examine potential jurors. Hodges said the chance of his agreeing to that was slim.
A federal indictment unsealed in October 2006 charged Snipes and two co-defendants with conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service and presenting a false claim for payment. The IRS is accusing the Blade trilogy star of owing more than $11-million in taxes.
Federal prosecutors elected to hold the trial in Ocala because investigators raided a Mount Dora office where much of their tax fraud evidence against Snipes was seized. Lake County falls within the federal court's Ocala division.
Snipes, who did not attend the hearing, was born in Orlando and recently lived in Windemere.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Scot Morris of Jacksonville said that the government plans to call at least 30 witnesses during the trial, which is expected to last almost a month.
The trial is set to begin Jan. 14. Bernhoft has asked for a delay until April 21, citing more than 1.6-million electronic documents that defense attorneys recently received and must review.
Hodges said he will issue a ruling on that and other outstanding requests soon.
Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or email@example.com
[Last modified December 12, 2007, 00:14:15]