Court orders shorter sentence for ‘Tiger King’ Joe Exotic

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)
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) (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

DENVER – A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that “Tiger King” Joe Exotic should get a shorter prison sentence for his role in a murder-for-hire plot and violating federal wildlife laws.

Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was sentenced in January 2020 to 22 years in federal prison after being convicted of trying to hire two different men to kill animal rights activist Carole Baskin. A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver found that the trial court wrongly treated those two convictions separately in calculating his prison term under sentencing guidelines.

The blond mullet-wearing zookeeper, known for his expletive-laden rants on YouTube and a failed 2018 Oklahoma gubernatorial campaign, was prominently featured in the popular Netflix documentary “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.”

The panel agreed with Maldonado-Passage that the court should have treated them as one conviction at sentencing because they both involved the same goal of killing Baskin, who runs a rescue sanctuary for big cats in Florida. According to the ruling, the court should have calculated his advisory sentencing range to be between 17 1/2 years and just under 22 years in prison, rather than between just under 22 years and 27 years in prison. The court ordered the trial court to re-sentence Maldonado-Passage.

It’s possible that Maldonado-Passage could receive an even lower sentence than the range cited in the ruling because the court has to consider other factors too, his appeals attorney, Brandon Sample, said.

Meanwhile, another attorney representing Maldonado-Passage, John M. Phillips, hinted at the possibility of seeking a new trial, saying in a statement he would be filing motions citing previously undisclosed and newly discovered evidence in the case as well as examples of government misconduct.

“People should know what they saw on television isn’t the full truth. It isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. It was snowflakes on the tip of the iceberg, largely manufactured by those who wanted to see Joe Exotic in jail for their own benefit," he said.

Maldonado-Passage, who has maintained his innocence, was also sentenced for killing five tigers, selling tiger cubs and falsifying wildlife records.

His supporters were disappointed that former President Donald Trump failed to issue him a pardon before leaving office. They were so confident in his chances that they had readied a celebratory limousine and a hair and wardrobe team to whisk him away from prison.

In his pardon application, Maldonado-Passage’s attorneys argued that he was “railroaded and betrayed” by others and said “he will likely die in prison” because of health concerns. He is serving his sentence at a medical prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

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This story has been corrected to say that the appeals court said the trial court should have calculated an advisory sentencing range of between 17 1/2 years and just under 22 years in prison, not that Maldonado-Passage should have been sentenced within that range.