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The actor is acquitted on two felony charges but convicted of not filing tax returns.
By KEVIN GRAHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published February 2, 2008
OCALA - A federal jury acquitted Wesley Snipes on Friday on two felony tax charges but convicted the actor on three of six misdemeanor charges that he intentionally failed to file tax returns.
"I'm very happy," a smiling Snipes, 45, said amid a mob of fans and reporters outside the federal building and U.S. courthouse in Ocala.
Snipes, who faces up to three years in prison, said his plans for the weekend are to "commune with the Lord."
Federal prosecutors spent nearly two weeks trying to prove that Snipes and two co-defendants conspired to defraud the IRS of about $11.4-million in refunds on taxes Snipes paid in 1996 and 1997.
In an October 2006 indictment, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa charged the Orlando native with one felony count of conspiracy, one felony count of filing a false claim with the IRS and six misdemeanor charges for willful failure to file tax returns from 1999 to 2004. Snipes was acquitted of three of the misdemeanors Friday.
Eddie Ray Kahn, a Lake County resident whom Snipes hired as a tax consultant in 2000, and Douglas P. Rosile, a Venice accountant who worked part-time for Kahn and prepared an amended return for Snipes, were each charged with conspiracy and filing a false claim with the IRS.
Jurors convicted Kahn and Rosile on both felony charges, which each carry maximum sentences of five years.
A sentencing date before Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges is pending. Snipes' attorneys said they hadn't decided whether they will appeal.
Meanwhile, Snipes remains free on bail. Hodges reduced the actor's bond from $1-million to $250,000. Rosile remains free on his own recognizance. Kahn is in jail until sentencing. The judge excused him from attending trial after he refused to participate.
Interim U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill, the lead prosecutor, didn't downplay the mixed verdict.
"We thought the charges were appropriate, and we wouldn't do anything different if we had to start again tomorrow," O'Neill said.
Snipes' defense attorneys failed repeatedly to have his trial moved to New York City near the actor's current home and called Ocala too racist to yield a fair jury.
Prosecutors chose Ocala because most of their evidence came from a raid on the offices of Kahn's firm, American Rights Litigators. At trial, O'Neill called it a business that tried to thwart the IRS.
Kahn tried to convince his clients, including Snipes, that the IRS had no legal authority to tax Americans on income they earned in the United States. While Kahn and tax protesters like him base their argument on a section of IRS code, courts have rejected the theory.
"We think we took our worst criminals off the street today," IRS special agent Victor Lessoff said.
He warned the nearly 4,000 clients of American Rights Litigators in Mount Dora, which became Guiding Light of God Ministries, that IRS investigators expect to charge other Kahn clients soon.
The IRS now plans to take Snipes to civil court, Lessoff said. He estimated that during the six years the Blade trilogy star failed to file tax returns, Snipes made $38-million.
Robert Barnes, one of Snipes' attorneys, has said the actor knows he owes back taxes and will likely face penalties, big fines and perhaps seizure of property.
The five-man, seven-woman jury deliberated for nearly three days. On Wednesday, it asked the judge for a clarification of "conspiracy."
Jury foreman Victor Costanzi, 47, of Clermont said a handful of jurors were confused about the word's meaning. He said jurors pored over evidence and considered each count individually before reaching a decision.
"We thought it was very fair," he said of the verdicts.
Prosecutors failed to convince the jury that Snipes had conspired with Kahn and Rosile or that he knew about an allegedly fraudulent amended tax return, Costanzi added. Rosile had changed the date on the return he prepared, which O'Neill said after the verdict may have given jurors reason to doubt that Snipes knew about it.
Neither Snipes nor his co-defendants put on a defense. His attorneys presented a time line during opening statements that showed Snipes' many failed attempts to meet with the IRS or have them audit him. Snipes' attorneys said an IRS agent told Snipes in May 2002 that there was a criminal investigation. The agent told Snipes that anything he did at that point could be used against him.
Barnes said the actor was then afraid to file any tax returns. Costanzi said the jury believed that, leading them to acquit Snipes for not filing 2002, 2003 and 2004 returns.
Robert Bernhoft, Snipes' lead defense attorney, declared that the jury acquitted Snipes of "all tax fraud charges against him."
"This is a man of integrity," Bernhoft said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at email@example.com or 813 226-3433.
[Last modified February 1, 2008, 22:23:10]