Defense presents 1st witness in murder-for-hire trial against ‘Joe Exotic’

OKLAHOMA CITY - Defense attorneys for former zookeeper 'Joe Exotic' have presented their first witness in the murder-for-hire trial against him.

The former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, stands accused of trying twice to hire someone to murder Florida sanctuary owner Carole Baskin. His defense attorneys claim he was set up in the first instance and not serious in the second.

In court Friday, the defense's first witness was a woman who worked with PETA to support their claim that Maldonado-Passage was never agreed to any murder.

A senior media liaison with the organization tells News 4, the defendant is "someone PETA has long advocated against" and the witness was "compelled to testify at Maldonado-Passage's trial via a subpoena".

She testified Maldonado-Passage had indicated he would leave the exotic animal business, but "there was no way" unless the $1 million trademark infringement lawsuit filed by Baskin "went away" and if the current zoo owner also agreed to leave the business.

During cross examination, the government presented an email sent by Maldonado-Passage to the witness in January 2018 in which he expressed his discontent with the drafted deal because it did nothing to "get rid of the judgment" or help in any way to pay off legal fees. A deal was never reached.

The government announced Friday morning their decision to dismiss two of the wildlife charges, specifically counts 13 and 14 as it relates to the Lacey Act. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the act enforces civil and criminal penalties for the illegal trade of animals and plants.

Maldonado-Passage's attorneys fought to have all of the remaining counts to be dismissed, citing their claim the government did not have sufficient. The judge rejected the motion.

Oklahoma defense attorney Elliott Crawford said this case is especially unique, as Oklahoma is not typically considered a 'hot bed' for exotic animals. The case itself involves multiple moving parts.

"It’s kind of a recipe for a cake or chocolate chip cookies. You have to certain ingredients," Crawford said. "One of those big elements is the federal nexus. Either that you have to show that the defendant traveled in interstate commerce or caused someone to travel in interstate commerce or use the mail or caused somebody else to use the mail or another facility of interstate commerce such as a cellphone in that there was an intent to commit a murder."

Among those factors, Crawford said witness credibility will be crucial when it comes to the jury's decision.

The defense plans to present another witness on Monday.

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