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Wesley Snipes goes on trial for tax fraud

OCALA, Florida (Reuters) - Actor Wesley Snipes went on trial on Monday for failing to file U.S. tax returns on tens of millions of dollars in income from 1999 to 2004.

Wesley Snipes clasps his hands together as he arrives at the U.S. Federal Court to stand trial for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and filing a false claim for a $7 million refund, in Ocala, Florida, January 14, 2008. Snipes is also charged with failing to file tax returns for the six years starting in 1999. REUTERS/Scott Audette

The star of the “Blade” movie series attended a prayer session at a nearby church organized by 22 pastors before heading to the U.S. District Court in Ocala, Florida, 80 miles

northwest of Orlando and the celebrity enclave of Isleworth, where prosecutors say Snipes lived at the time of the suspected fraud.

The trial began with jury selection and Snipes’ defense team indicated it expected the trial to last around a month.

His lawyers read out a list of potential celebrity witnesses who might testify on his behalf, including retired NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, movie director Spike Lee and actress Goldie Hawn.

Snipes, 45, has been charged with six counts of failing to file tax returns, two counts of fraudulently claiming tax refunds and one count of conspiracy to defraud the government. He faces 16 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

Also on trial are a known tax protester and former accountant the Justice Department said was barred by a federal court from preparing other people’s tax returns.

Snipes’ lawyers say he was duped by his tax advisers. His attorneys have repeatedly sought to move his trial out of Ocala, Florida, which they say is a hotbed of racism.

Prosecutors say the suspected tax fraud occurred at a time when Snipes was signing movie deals worth more than $10 million each for “Blade II” and “Blade: Trinity.” During the six years in question, prosecutors say Snipes earned about $40 million.

In addition to not filing tax returns, Snipes tried to get fraudulent refunds from the IRS totaling $11.3 million for taxes he paid in 1996 and 1997, according to prosecutors.

Snipes joined a group in 2000 called American Rights Litigators headed by Eddie Ray Kahn, a tax protester with convictions dating back to 1985, and paid Kahn a consulting fee of $2,000, according to prosecutors.

Kahn and former accountant Daniel P. Rosile are co-defendants with Snipes in the trial.

Editing by Michael Christie