Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic from the Netflix series “Tiger King,” will have his 22-year prison sentence recalculated after the Tenth Circuit ruled Wednesday that the lower court was required to group his two murder-for-hire convictions at sentencing.
The lower court properly allowed Carole Baskin, the woman he was accused of trying to kill, to attend the trial proceedings, despite her being listed as a government witness, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit also ruled.
Maldonado-Passage owned a large population of big cats and was convicted of trying to kill Baskin, an animal rights activist, in what the court described as a “rivalry made in heaven.”
Maldonado-Passage argued Baskin couldn’t be in the courtroom as a crime victim under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because she didn’t suffer physical harm from his alleged crimes. However, the act doesn’t require physical harm, and he can’t read that condition into the statute, the court said in an opinion by Judge Gregory A. Phillips.
His commission of the murder-for-hire crimes “directly and proximately caused Baskin’s harms,” the court said. Baskin stepped up her security, avoided going out in public, and testified that she never felt safe, according to the ruling.
Maldonado-Passage argued that by not grouping the two murder-for-hire counts, he faced a higher total offense level. As a result, his advisory guidelines increased from a range of 210-262 months to 262-327 months, he told the appeals court.
While Maldonado-Passage hired two different hitmen on different occasions, his goal remained the same, the court said. Therefore, the acts shared a common criminal objective and the sentencing guidelines say they should be grouped, according to the ruling.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma focused on the “means, not the ends, of Baskin’s planned murder,” which conflicts with precedent, the appeals court said in remanding for resentencing.
Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr. joined the opinion.
Judge Harris L. Hartz concurred with the majority. But he said that the opinion could be read as saying applying the guidelines to the facts of the case amounts to interpreting the guidelines.
“Our review is not de novo, as it would be if we were reviewing a district court’s interpretation of the guideline,” Hartz wrote.
Brandon Sample of Rutland, Vt., represented Maldonado-Passage. The U.S. Attorney’s Office represented the federal government.
The case is United States v. Maldonado-Passage, 10th Cir., No. 20-06010, 7/14/21.