Why Wesley Snipes deserves a second chance
OPINION - He, like so many other black men, will serve time for an offense that would typically result in a fine...
Wesley Snipes next starring role could easily be based on his own life. Most of us know that Snipes has been embroiled in tax difficulties and many of us have simply assumed that he was another movie star stuck in the same trap as other greedy millionaires, deciding to just not pay the IRS. However, Snipes insists this isn’t the case and he sites circumstances with enough twists and turns it could only emerge from Hollywood.
Appearing on CNN last night with Larry King, Snipes, who is scheduled to report to the McKean Federal Correctional Institution in Lewis Run, Pennsylvania tomorrow, finally shared some of his story. Contrary to many news reports, Snipes was not convicted of tax evasion. Instead, he was found guilty of not filing tax returns in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
According to his attorney, Daniel R. Meachum, who is African-American, the distinction is very important because one is a felony and the other is a misdemeanor. Because Snipes was found guilty of three misdemeanors, carrying a possible one year sentence each, he received three years total. For him to serve jail time for misdemeanors is unusual. For his part, Snipes believes that he is a victim of many things, including hack accountants, Ponzi schemes and racism.
WATCH ‘MORNING JOE’ COVERAGE OF THE SNIPES STORY:
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In 2008, Snipes went to trial in Ocala, Florida as a co-defendant alongside Eddie Ray Kahn, who owned the Florida-based accounting firm, American Rights Litigators (ARL) and ARL employee Douglas Rosile, who served as Snipes’s accountant and actually prepared Snipes’s taxes. The problem with ARL, which was also known as Guiding Light of God Ministries, is that they were a company that helped its clients avoid paying taxes. According to AccountingToday.com, Rosile “sent ‘voluminous’ letters to the IRS challenging the agency’s authority to collect taxes” from Snipes through the “861 argument,” which asserts that “the domestic earnings of individual Americans do not quality as ‘income’ under the law because the earnings did not come from a listed source.”
Considering that Snipes made over 37 million dollars in the time frame of 1999 to 2004 when he was accused of tax impropriety, it’s easy to understand the government’s anger. Making matters worse, documentation, dated in the year 2001, bearing Snipes name actually called for a tax refund of over 7 million dollars on taxes filed in 1997. Snipes denied any such knowledge to King, emphasizing his willingness to pay his taxes. “The press hasn’t reported that I was a client of people who I trusted [who] had knowledge and expertise in the areas of tax law that would protect my interests,” he stated.
But the intrigue doesn’t stop there, as Snipes had his own Bernie Madoff clone to add further financial distress. In September, Kenneth Starr, Snipes’s one-time financial advisor who also represented Uma Thurman and Martin Scorsese, pleaded guilty to masterminding a $60 million Ponzi scheme. According to Meachum, Snipes left Starr (who is not the infamous one from President Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal) when he discovered that Starr had forged his name on several documents. The major problem with that is that Starr was used as a star witness to convict Snipes.
Obviously, an admitted criminal testifying to criminal activity on another person’s part before his sins surfaced is problematic. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however. How about adding in jurors who admitted that they felt Snipes was guilty before the trial even started? That’s what Snipes’s white male juror Frank Tuttle now claims. Tuttle has shared, on record, that, when one of his fellow jurors shared that he knew Snipes was guilty during jury selection, two other jurors also admitted to feeling the same. In a country where one is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, that’s more than a tough break. “It’s almost as if they thought I really was Nino Brown, instead of Wesley Snipes,” Snipes quipped, regarding his treatment from his jurors and the media.
If that weren’t already enough to bring Snipes’s guilt into question, try holding a trial in a location known to still sympathize with the Confederacy, even in the 21st century. The entire time Snipes was on trial in Ocala, there was a Confederate statue outside the Marion County Judicial Center. Only in January 2010 did a commission successfully voted to relocate the “Johnny Reb” Confederate Civil War statue. That statue, according to a 2006 article by Joe Byrnes, honored Confederate leaders, including General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is cited as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The presiding judge refused requests from Snipes to move the trial from Ocala to New York City to ensure a fair trial.
In the movies, there would be a last minute order to review the case and possibly to dismiss it too. Unfortunately, for Snipes, that seems increasingly unlikely. The bad news is that, despite his millions and movie stardom, he, like so many other black men, will serve time for an offense that would typically result in a fine.
At this point, he can only hope that there will be roles available to a black actor hitting the other side of 50 who served three years for an offense for which he proclaimed his innocence. Then, again, a successful appeal to the Supreme Court to end his sentence would make for a happy ending in real life and on the big screen.