All-white jury ready for Snipes' tax trial

The lead defense attorney says he has faith in the panel.

By KEVIN GRAHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published January 16, 2008

OCALA - A caregiver for disabled children, a banker and an orchid grower are among the 12 jurors and four alternates seated Tuesday in the tax evasion trial for actor Wesley Snipes.

The 11 women and five men also include a radiation therapist, a retired storage manager and a pediatric physical therapist.

But the diversity of the panel may not extend further than their occupations or counties of residence.

All of the jurors are white.

For months, Snipes' attorneys raised concerns with the court about yielding a fair jury in Ocala. They cited Ku Klux Klan activity and racist beliefs by area residents as a reason to transfer the trial to New York City, where Snipes lives. A judge denied those requests.

And there were no African-Americans in the jury pool, which Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges began examining on Monday.

But after court adjourned Tuesday, Snipes lead defense attorney, Robert Bernhoft, said he was pleased with the jury selected.

"I like this jury," Bernhoft said. "I have a lot of faith in human nature, and I believe these 12 people and four alternates will judge fairly and judge Wesley Snipes the way they want to be judged."

The judge spent most of Tuesday re-questioning some jurors who said on Monday that they knew details of the case that had not been discussed in court. Hodges talked to them one on one, sending others in the jury pool out for a break, to find out exactly what they knew and from what source.

A Marion County grandmother said her postmaster told her Snipes' attorneys wanted the trial moved because of Klan activity.

"I just smiled. That's just crazy," the woman told the judge. "There are racists in everything. I don't feel there is a real problem in all of Ocala. There may be in certain segments, but it won't affect me because I don't go that way."

She was later dismissed.

Hodges also excused a man who said he loved Snipes in the movie White Men Can't Jump, but that he had a problem with people not paying taxes.

"When I hear people that didn't pay their taxes and they are surrounded by people who are specialists, that shouldn't happen," he told the judge.

One of Hodges' questions to jury candidates was if they thought African-Americans commit disproportionately more crimes than others.

On Tuesday, six potential jurors said they thought so.

Hodges sent them all home.

Prosecutors accuse the 45-year-old film star of filing false tax return in 1996 and 1997, claiming a totalling $11.4-million in refunds. The Internal Revenue Service also says he filed no taxes at all from 1999 to 2004.

The trial resumes today at 9 a.m., when the jury will be sworn and opening statements presented. Prosecutors said they plan to call their first four witnesses.

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or 813 226-3433.