Tiger King star Joe Exotic will get a revised prison sentence in his murder-for-hire case, but will still face a significant amount of time behind bars.
A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld the television star's conviction, but tossed out his 22-year prison sentence and ordered a redo, citing an error in the way a lower court judge calculated the amount of time.
Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was convicted on two charges of trying to pay assassins to kill rival Carole Baskin, the CEO of Big Cat Rescue. He was also convicted on eight counts for faking wildlife records and nine counts involving his killing and selling tigers, which are an endangered species.
Exotic's sentencing was before the federal appeals court over the question of whether to count his two murder-for-hire convictions separately or together when adjudicating the length of this prison term.
At the time of Exotic's sentencing in January 2020, the judge didn’t group together the two counts, despite the fact that they “shared a common criminal objective” and were part of the same “course of conduct,” the federal court said.
“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,” the decision states.
In federal criminal cases, different factors are assigned numerical values — things like the seriousness of the charges, whether a person pleaded guilty, and whether they had previous convictions — and those numbers are added up to come up with a range of how much time someone should spend in prison. Judges don't have to stick to this advisory range, but they typically stay within the suggested timeframe to balance sentences across the criminal justice system.
If the court had grouped the two murder-for-hire charges, Exotic's total offense score would have been 37, with sentencing range of 210 to 262 months. Instead, the ungrouped counts produced a final grade of 39, with a longer sentencing range of between 262 and 327 months.
Exotic's attorney, Brandon Sample, said in a statement that he was pleased with the appellate court’s decision.
"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," he said. "I am optimistic that the decision today is but one of many more victories to come for Joe — and his eventual freedom."
Baskin declined to comment on the ruling, and there was no immediate timeline for then Exotic would be resentenced.
In 2021, as former president Donald Trump prepared to leave office, Exotic's attorneys were publicly touting their client's imminent White House pardon — which ultimately never came.
At the time, Baskin told BuzzFeed News she was thankful that Trump decided against a pardon.
"There is no benefit, other than a feeble attempt to deflect attention, for anyone to pardon someone who walked up to five tigers and shot them in the head in order to clear cage space for the circus, who was going to pay him to board their tigers during the offseason," she said. "Tigers are the world's favorite animal and Joe Schreibvogel Maldonado Passage is right where he belongs: in a cage."
Exotic had also tried to challenge his conviction because Baskin sat in the courtroom during his trial when she was a witness for the prosecution, but the appeals court said she had a right to be there because she was a victim.
Netflix’s Tiger King documentary series featured the strangely alluring reality of Exotic's Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma. The keeper of a menagerie of big cats, he fosters an intense rivalry with Baskin of Big Cat Rescue.
Baskin is an animal rights activist who saw Exotic's keeping and crossbreeding of lions and tigers as “evil,” according to court documents. Baskin’s protests against Exotic escalated to the degree that the self-proclaimed “Tiger King” twice attempted to hire men to kill her. Baskin also won a lawsuit against Exotic in 2011 for trademark infringement.
Prosecutors say Exotic gave a person $3,000 to travel to Florida from Oklahoma to kill Baskin, and in another instance offered to sell "a bunch of tigers" to get money to pay an undercover FBI agent disguised as an assassin for hire, according to the US Attorney's Office for the Western District of Oklahoma.
Exotic is currently behind bars in Texas, and Baskin now owns his zoo properties.