Wesley Snipes might have disagreed with the Internal Revenue Service about his taxes, but that doesn't make him a criminal, his attorney said.
"Being a protester is not a crime," Robert Barnes, one of Snipes' defense attorneys, said Tuesday in court. "This is, after all, still the United States of America."
During closing arguments in Snipes' tax evasion trial, his attorneys described him to jurors as a man who was out to find answers, not deceive the IRS.
During nearly two weeks of testimony at the Ocala federal courthouse, the U.S. Attorney's Office has sought to prove that the movie star, 45, intentionally tried to defraud the IRS by filing false tax return claims. The government accused him of filing false returns for 1996 and 1997 asking for refunds that totaled $11.4-million. The IRS also says Snipes filed no tax returns at all from 1999 to 2004 while earning millions in income.
"Nobody likes paying taxes. Nobody," Assistant U.S. Attorney Scot Morris told jurors. "But paying taxes is the price we pay to live in a civilized society, and it's the law. That's what this case is about. Three men who believe they are above the law, and they are not. Tell them that. Find them guilty."
Named as co-defendants in the case are Eddie Ray Kahn, a known tax protester from Lake County whom Snipes hired as a consultant, and accountant Douglas Rosile of Venice.
Jurors received the case at the end of the day and were instructed by the judge to pick a foreman before going home. They will return at 9 a.m. today to resume deliberations.
Attorneys for Snipes rested their case Monday without calling a single witness. They had promised a potential list of celebrities to appear on Snipes' behalf, including actors Sylvester Stallone and Goldie Hawn, and broadcasters Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters.
Snipes' attorneys said they called no witnesses because the government failed to prove Snipes had done anything wrong.
"Tax frauds and people out to deceive the IRS do not write lots and lots of letters to the IRS," Barnes said. "Tax frauds and people out to trick the IRS, people out to take something from the IRS, do not ask to be audited."
Barnes said Snipes did all those things, and the IRS failed to respond to his questions or requests for a meeting.
Interim U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill, lead prosecutor, said if the IRS sat down to talk with every taxpayer who asked for a meeting, "everything would grind to a halt."
O'Neill reminded jurors not to forget about Kahn, whom the judge excused from showing up for trial after he refused to participate. He also reminded them of Rosile's role. He's accused of preparing one of the fraudulent tax returns. Rosile's attorney has said he was only making a "cameo" in the trial and denied ever conspiring with Snipes or Kahn to defraud the IRS.
"Even when an actor makes a cameo appearance in a movie, he gets credit at the end," O'Neill said.
Snipes was joined in court Tuesday by his mother and his wife, Nakyung "Nikki" Park. During one break in the proceedings, Snipes sat in the hallway next to his wife and played with a toddler.
Outside the courthouse before he left, Snipes signed autographs, as has become his custom at the end of the day. And he said a little more than usual to reporters asking questions.
"I have a great deal of faith and belief in the jury," Snipes said. "And I look forward to walking out of here."
Even if Snipes is acquitted on all the charges, Barnes said he will still owe the IRS for unpaid taxes.
"He will pay lots of penalties," Barnes said. "There's no doubt the IRS will get money and property. They will get a lot more than they probably should get."
If he's convicted, Snipes could get a maximum of 16 years in federal prison.
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.