A district court on Wednesday ordered Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, to be re-sentenced for the murder-for-hire plot targeting animal activist Carole Baskin. Despite the re-sentencing, which is the result of two charges being improperly separated, the convictions still stand.
Maldonado-Passage, the 58-year-old star of the “Tiger King” docu-series, was convicted in 2019 on 21 counts: Two for hiring hitmen to kill Baskin, and 19 counts of wildlife crimes. In 2020, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Maldonado-Passage appealed the decision on two grounds. First, he argued that the court erred in allowing Baskin to attend the entire trial, because she was also serving as a witness and could have changed her testimony based on what she heard. He also claimed his two murder-for hire convictions were wrongly separated, arguing that district court guidelines require the two counts to be grouped together since the same victim was involved and because the acts were connected by the common criminal objective of murdering Baskin.
While the court upheld the decision to allow Baskin to attend the proceedings, writing that it was her right to do so as a victim of his crimes, they agreed with Maldonado-Passage that the court should have grouped the two murder-for-hire convictions.
Should the court have grouped the two counts, his total offense level — a metric used in sentencing — would have dropped from a 39 to a 37. The sentencing range for a 39 is 262 to 327 months, while the sentencing range for a 37 is 210 to 262 months. Maldonado-Passage’s original 22-year sentence is 264 months.
Under court guidelines, counts must be grouped if three conditions are met: the same victim is involved in the counts, two or more acts or transactions are involved with the counts and the acts or transactions are connected by “a common criminal objective.”
“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,” circuit judge Harris Hartz wrote in a concurring opinion. “This error in interpreting the guidelines requires reversal.”
Court documents described Maldonado-Passage’s relationship with Baskin as a “rivalry made in heaven.” Maldonado-Passage exhibited cubs for entertainment and bred lions and tigers to create big-cat hybrids at his formerly owned and operated Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, the documents said. Baskin, who owns the animal sanctuary Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, criticized Maldonado-Passage’s parks and practices, saying that he abused his animals.
The rivalry accelerated when Baskin sued Maldonado-Passage for copyright and trademark infringement and left him bankrupt. He launched social media threats against her, in what she described as a dangerous obsession, the documents said. In 2017, he began to plot her murder, hiring one of his park employees, and subsequently an undercover FBI agent, to “cut her head off.”
“Despite all his efforts, Maldonado-Passage’s murderous plans failed, and his actions culminated in his eventual arrest,” court documents state.
Maldonado-Passage is serving his sentence in Fort Worth, Texas. Last year, he sent former president Donald Trump a handwritten letter asking for an expedited clemency, in which he called Mr. Trump his hero. His plea was declined.
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