Wesley Snipes Tax-Fraud Trial Begins

01/16/2008 at 04:25 PM EST

Wesley Snipes Tax-Fraud Trial Begins
Wesley Snipes
Reinhold Matay/AP
Wesley Snipes's failure to file income-tax returns during the six years he made nearly $38 million was due to bad advice, the actor's attorney said during opening statements in a federal trial in Ocala, Fla., Wednesday.

Lawyer Robert Bernhoft said his client got duped by an organization that maintains people can legally stop paying their income taxes, and that when Snipes asked the IRS about the matter, he received the runaround.

Prosecutor Robert O'Neill, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, maintains Snipes, 45, feigned confusion about the tax law and knew he had to pay the IRS because his original tax advisor told him so.

If convicted of all the charges against him, the Blade actor, 45, could conceivably face 16 years in federal prison Indicted on eight counts, Snipes allegedly conspired to avoid paying taxes, filed a false claim for a $7 million refund (for when he was paying taxes in 1997) and faces six counts of failing to file tax returns from 1999 through 2004. He has entered a plea of not guilty.

Snipes, who has a Florida driver's license but says he had been living in Manhattan until the 9/11 terror attacks destroyed his home, sought to have the trial moved to New York, where the racial makeup is more diverse.

In Ocala, Snipes, an African American, faces an all-white jury. He also expressed concerns about a 1908 statue that stands by the courthouse, of the reputed founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest – for whom the fictional character Forrest Gump was named.

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