OCALA, Florida (CNN) -- Actor Wesley Snipes was sentenced Thursday to three years in prison for three misdemeanor counts of failing to file tax returns -- the maximum requested by federal prosecutors.
"Snipes' long prison sentence should send a loud and crystal clear message to all tax defiers that if they engage in similar tax defier conduct, they face joining him," said Assistant Attorney General Nathan J. Hochman of the Justice Department's Tax Division.
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Douglas Shulman said the law is clear on taxes.
"There is no secret formula that eliminates a person's tax obligations, nor are there any special exceptions," he said.
"The majority of Americans pay their taxes timely and accurately. Those who willfully violate the law must be held accountable."
In a civil suit, the IRS is seeking repayment of all taxes and interest from Snipes.
Federal prosecutors said the actor for nearly a decade escaped paying more than $15 million in income tax returns by sending money to overseas accounts, though they acknowledged in court that the amount is in dispute.
Before the sentencing, the actor asked the court to show mercy and offered three checks totaling $5 million as a gesture of good will.
Federal prosecutors diverted the checks to the U.S. Treasury -- which accepted the payment -- but it wasn't enough.
"It's essentially a down payment, but a fraction of what he owes," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Scotland Morris.
Snipes' attorneys -- who had argued he should get probation or house arrest -- said they will appeal the sentence.
The actor, who showed little reaction, gave a loud "wow" to the crowd as he exited the courtroom. Watch Snipes leave the court »
A jury convicted Snipes on the misdemeanor charges February 1, but he was acquitted of more serious felony charges of tax fraud and conspiracy. Jurors accepted his argument that he was innocently duped by errant tax advisers.
Defense attorneys in court documents suggested that to sentence Snipes harshly would be to disregard the jury's verdict.
But prosecutors, in their sentencing recommendation, said the jurors' decision "has been portrayed in the mainstream media as a 'victory' for Snipes. 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."
Snipes, who has starred in dozens of movies, including the "Blade" trilogy, "Major League" and "Murder at 1600" had received the support of many of Hollywood friends. Defense attorneys filed 39 pages of testimonials, letters from a Hollywood "Who's Who" list and also high school friends and his employees.
Actors Denzel Washington and Woody Harrelson, as well as television judges Joe Brown and Greg Mathis, submitted letters to the judge on Snipes' behalf.
In his letter, Washington said Snipes was "like a tree -- a mighty oak ... Many who know him have witnessed the fruit of his labors, have sat in his shade and even been protected by his presence. I am proud of him, proud to call him a fellow thespian and most importantly, proud to call him a friend."
Brown, who addressed the court on Thursday, likened Snipes to legendary actors, including Sidney Poitier, and said, "I have been something of a mentor to the young man."
Another witness described how Snipes had helped train personnel from 33 airlines on safety techniques after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, without seeking pay or media attention.
"This man is one of the most honorable men of character," said Robert Wall, CEO and president of World Black Belt, a martial arts training firm. "He's made mistakes, but I'm so impressed with the depth of his character." E-mail to a friend
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