Actor Wesley Snipes ordered to begin serving prison term

Nov 19 2010 - 3:25pm

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The Associated Press file photo
Wesley Snipes
The Associated Press file photo
Wesley Snipes

OCALA, Fla. -- A federal judge Friday rejected movie star Wesley Snipes' demand for a new trial and ordered the actor to surrender to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to begin serving a 36-month prison sentence for tax-related crimes.

In a 17-page order, U.S. District Court Judge William Terrell Hodges said, "The Defendant Snipes had a fair trial; he has had a full, fair and thorough review of his conviction and sentence by the Court of Appeals; and he has had a full, fair and thorough review of his present claims, during all of which he has remained at liberty. The time has come for the judgment to be enforced."

Snipes, 48, the star of "Jungle Fever," "White Men Can't Jump," and "The Fugitive" sequel "U.S. Marshals," was convicted in 2008 of three misdemeanor counts of willfully failing to file federal tax returns.

Prosecutors contend he obstructed the Internal Revenue Service and attempted to avoid paying millions of dollars in federal taxes.

"It is just shocking," Snipes' Atlanta-based lawyer Daniel Meachum said in an e-mail to The Orlando Sentinel. "Wesley is very disappointed but staying strong and positive."

The actor's defense team had hoped the judge would grant Snipes a new trial after receiving e-mails from two jurors who said that other members of the panel had concluded the actor was guilty before the trial began.

Meachum also argued that a key government witness, Kenneth Starr, provided "tainted" testimony against Snipes. Starr, a New York financial adviser with a stable of celebrity clients, pleaded guilty recently to fraud.

"We were hopeful that we had convinced Judge Hodges that the government's witness, Ken Starr, had perjured himself and that the government knew of his criminal activities and the predetermined minds of three jurors, but we obviously fell short in accomplishing that," Meachum said.

He said the defense team was "determined to exhaust all plausible avenues in this matter."

While Snipes could challenge Hodges' latest ruling and ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review his case, he would likely await the ruling from a federal prison cell.

The judge's order requires Snipes to "surrender himself" upon receipt of notice from the U.S. Marshal Service or from the federal Bureau of Prisons. It is unclear in the order where and when he must turn himself in.

Best known as the vampire-killing hero in the science-fiction trilogy "Blade," Snipes was accused of conspiring with Eddie Ray Kahn of Lake County, Fla., to avoid paying more than $15 million in taxes from 1999 to 2004.

The conspiracy charge accused Snipes of seeking a fraudulent refund of $7.3 million.

Kahn, who founded American Rights Litigators in Mount Dora, Fla., sold illegal tax-dodging schemes and convinced the actor that he had no obligation to pay federal income taxes. Kahn was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Snipes' defense team provided Hodges with an unsolicited e-mail from a juror whose identity was redacted from public documents and who suggested that other members of the panel were not fair to the actor.

The e-mail read: "I served on the jury in Ocala that found him guilty on 3 counts of failing to file taxes. It was a deal that had to be made because of certain jurors that had already presumed he was guilty before the trail (sic) started and we only found this out in the last few days of deliberation. We thought we were making the right deal because we did not think he would go to jail for not filing taxes. There were 3 on the jury that felt this way and told us he was guilty before they even heard the first piece of evidence going against what the judge had said."

Jurors take an oath pledging to obey the principle that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.

In his ruling, Hodges noted the e-mail "presents, to be sure, a troubling set of circumstances," which would be contrary to the jury's oath and his repeated instructions before and during the two-week length of the trial.

U.S. law also prohibits courts from prying into jury deliberations without evidence of outside influence.

Hodges pointed out, "It is also worthy of note ... that the veracity of the claim of juror misconduct in this case is undermined by the fact that (Snipes) was acquitted of the most serious charges; that the complaining juror waited two and a half years before bringing the alleged misconduct to light; and the fact that the jurors' complaint was expressly motivated by the Defendant's sentence -- a consideration that, in itself, the jury was expressly instructed to disregard in arriving at its verdict."

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