Imprisoned star of the Netflix Tiger King docuseries Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, didn’t get the presidential pardon he was publicly pleading for before Donald Trump left office, but a federal appeals court in Colorado gave the former Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate a legal victory on Wednesday, ruling that his prison sentence was incorrectly calculated by the trial court judge. The ruling could shave more than four years off of his sentence.
The 57-year-old Maldonado-Passage in 2019 was convicted for a slew of federal crimes, including nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, eight counts of falsifying wildlife records, and two counts for attempting to hire a hitman for $10,000 to murder his rival, animal activist Carole Baskin. He was ultimately sentenced to 22 years in prison, the lowest sentence with in the range prescribed by the federal sentencing guidelines.
Joe Exotic’s attorney appealed the sentence as excessive, arguing that the trial court should have grouped the two murder-for-hire charges together. Grouping the two counts together would have resulted in fewer months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.
“The district court found the counts should not be grouped because they involved different kinds of harm, different dates, and different proposed hitmen,” Sample said during oral arguments in January. “We believe the district court erred in reaching that determination.”
A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed, reasoning that both counts involved the same victim and were connected by multiple acts involving the same criminal objective, which was murdering Baskin.
“Had the district court grouped the two counts, Maldonado-Passage’s total offense level would have been 37. But not grouping the two counts led to an additional two offense levels, for a total of 39,” Circuit Judge Gregory A. Phillips wrote, explaining how the federal guidelines informed the sentence. “This increased his advisory Guidelines range from 210 to 262 months to 262 to 327 months.”
The government had sought to keep the two murder-for-hire counts separate by arguing that Baskin was aware of the second plot in an attempt to establish that she “had experienced separate fear from each plot.” But the panel said that “nothing in the record supports such an assertion.”
“The court found separate courses of conduct on grounds that the two counts involved separate hitmen, separate murder plans, and separate timelines. Thus, the court focused on the means, not the ends, of Baskin’s planned murder, not whether the acts underlying the two counts were connected by a common criminal objective,” Phillips wrote. “Here, Baskin was neither murdered multiple times nor assaulted multiple times during attempted murders. Her harm was one sustained, ongoing harm. She learned that Maldonado-Passage intended to have her killed and lived with that fear.”
The panel affirmed Maldonado-Passage’s conviction but vacated the sentence, remanding the case back to the district court for resentencing.
Read the full ruling below.
[image via Netflix]
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