The Blade star, 45, was sentenced Thursday to three years behind bars as his punishment for failing to file his tax returns, U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges announced in an Ocala, Fla., courtroom.
The actor sat stone-faced – and some people in the courtroom gasped – when the sentence was read. "I'm very sorry for my mistakes and errors. I apologize to my family, the court and the community," Snipes said as his wife looked on. "I've asked the court to show me mercy and the opportunity to make things right."
In February, a federal jury convicted Snipes of three counts of failing to file a tax return (from 1999 through 2001). Thursday he received 12 months for each count. Prosecutors say the actor owes a total of $41 million in taxes, of which he paid $5 at the sentencing.
Several famous names sent in letters of support for Snipes, including Denzel Washington, Woody Harrelson and TV judge Joe Brown. Washington called Snipes a "great oak." Harrelson, who starred with Snipes in Wildcats, wrote, "Wes continues to encourage and challenge me to be the best man I can be by being a constant friend."
Prosecutors Ask MaximumIn February, Snipes, an Orlando native, was acquitted on the more serious charges of conspiracy to defraud the government and filing a false claim for a $7 million refund – both felonies – as well as three similar counts of failure to file returns for the years 2002, 2003 and 2004.
The prosecution, seeking to make an example of Snipes, had requested the maximum: three years in prison and a fine of at least $5 million.
"The fact that Snipes was acquitted on two felony charges and convicted 'only' on three misdemeanor counts has been portrayed in the mainstream media as a 'victory' for Snipes," the government said in its sentencing recommendation. "The troubling implication of such coverage for the millions of average citizens who are aware of this case is that the rich and famous Wesley Snipes has 'gotten away with it.' In the end the criminal conduct of Snipes must not be seen in such a light."
Defense: Probation, Not PrisonThe defense, on the other hand, sought probation rather than prison time. "Wesley Snipes is not a dangerous man who needs to be imprisoned to protect the public," Snipes' attorney said in his sentencing memo.
"He is contrite, promises that he will never again break the law, and respectfully asks the court to consider not just the jury verdict but also all the good that he has done in his life."
Snipes's side also claims the tax loss from 1999 through 2001 is only $227,959.
Whatever the sum, "The IRS will still try to collect the money. You can count on that," Victor Lessoff, who heads the Internal Revenue office in Tampa, tells PEOPLE.