U.S. District Court of Appeals vacates sentence for ‘Tiger King’ Joe Exotic, orders resentencing

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FILE – In this Aug. 28, 2013, file photo, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, is seen at the zoo he used to run in Wynnewood, Okla. A federal judge in Oklahoma has ordered the new owners of the Oklahoma zoo featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King” documentary to turn over all the lion and tiger cubs in their possession, along with the animals’ mothers, to the federal government. U.S. District Judge John F. Heil III issued the order last week in the case against Jeffrey and Lauren Lowe and the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park based on claimed violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Animal Welfare Act. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The U.S. 10th District Court of Appeals has ordered Joseph Maldonado-Passage, aka Joe Exotic, be resentenced following his conviction in the murder-for-hire plot of Big Cat Rescue’s Carole Baskin.

According to court documents, the judge affirmed Maldonado-Passage’s conviction but has decided to vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.

In 2018, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic” and former owner of the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park, was indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of murder-for-hire.

Prosecutors say Maldonado-Passage gave a person $3,000 to travel from Oklahoma to Florida to carry out the murder of big cat activist Carole Baskin and “allegedly agreed to pay thousands more after the deed,” said the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Oklahoma.

Officials offered evidence in the form of recordings of Maldonado-Passage negotiating the hiring of an undercover FBI agent, who was posing as a hitman. When talking about payment, Maldonado-Passage reportedly said, “I’ll just sell a bunch of tigers.”

The intended target of the hit was Carole Baskin, a chief critic of Maldonado-Passage. Baskin successfully sued Maldonado-Passage for trademark infringement in 2011, and was outspoken about the treatment of animals at the park.

ILE - In this July 20, 2017 file photo, Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, walks the property near Tampa, Fla. Baskin was married to Jack “Don” Lewis, whose 1997 disappearance remains unsolved and is the subject of a new Netflix series “Tiger King.” (Loren Elliott/Tampa Bay Times via AP, File)
FILE – In this July 20, 2017 file photo, Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, walks the property near Tampa, Fla. Baskin was married to Jack “Don” Lewis, whose 1997 disappearance remains unsolved and is the subject of a new Netflix series “Tiger King.” (Loren Elliott/Tampa Bay Times via AP, File)

The defense claimed their client was framed. They say he was all talk and had no intention of wanting Baskin dead.

The former Greater Wynnewood Animal Park owner was found guilty on all counts in 2019.

He was ultimately sentenced to a total of 22 years in prison for both the murder-for-hire plot and several wildlife charges. Officials say he was sentenced to nine years in prison for each of the murder-for-hire convictions, and four years for the wildlife violations.

Joseph Maldonaldo-Passage or “Joe Exotic”

Now, a judge for the U.S. 10th District Court says although the conviction remains, the sentencing must be reconsidered.

“We hold that the district court acted within its discretion by allowing Baskin to attend the full trial proceedings despite her being listed as a government witness, but that it erred by not grouping the two murder-for-hire convictions at sentencing,” said the appeal.

The judge agreed with the appeal, saying, “Although the district court apparently thought that the two murder-for-hire plots shared a common criminal objective, it mistakenly (although quite understandably)
thought that grouping would not be proper unless they were also part of the same course of conduct. This error in interpreting the guidelines requires reversal.”

Brandon Sample, appellate counsel for Joe Exotic said, “I am pleased with the appellate court’s decision in Joe’s case. I knew when I agreed to represent Joe that an appeal would be difficult, but I also knew that the law was on Joe’s side. I am optimistic that the decision today is but one of many more victories to come for Joe—and his eventual freedom.”

Maldonado-Passage will remain in custody until resentencing can be determined.

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