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‘Joe Exotic’ Resentencing Barely Dents Original 22-Year Punishment in Murder-for-Hire Plot


Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. “Joe Exotic.”

An Oklahoma federal court on Friday recalculated the murder-for-hire sentence of the controversial zoo keeper “Joe Exotic,” but the new punishment didn’t do too much for the 58-year-old ailing prison inmate. The judge knocked only one year off the original 22-year punishment.

A federal appeals court ruled in July that the trial court miscalculated Exotic’s sentence when it came to two murder-for-hire counts connected to a plot to kill rival animal rights activist Carole Baskin. Exotic’s defense successfully argued that those charges should have been grouped together by a trial judge under federal sentencing guidelines because they involved the same victim and the same criminal objective.

Judge Gregory A. Phillips of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals explained the proper procedure in a July 2021 opinion:

Under § 3D1.2(b) of the Guidelines, courts must group counts as involving “substantially the same harm” if three conditions are met: (1) the counts involve the same victim; (2) the counts involve two or more acts or transactions; and (3) the acts or transactions are connected by a “common criminal objective.” The parties agree that the first two conditions are met. Thus, the grouping decision depends on whether the acts or transactions underlying the two murder-for-hire counts were connected by a “common criminal objective” — making them “closely related counts.” U.S.S.G. § 3D1.2.

This decision is as straightforward as § 3D1.2(b)’s “common criminal objective” language is plain. An object is “something sought to be attained or accomplished; an end, goal, or purpose.”

[ . . . ]

At oral argument, the government asserted an uncertain belief that Baskin knew about the second murder plot, trying to establish that Baskin had experienced separate fear from each plot. But we see nothing in the record to support such an assertion.

The prosecution acknowledged in a filing dated Oct. 19, 2021 that the correct sentencing guideline was 210 months (17.5 years) to 262 months (21 years and 10 months) behind bars.  (The government’s original request back in 2019 was 324-405 months.)

Exotic, appearing in court records as Joseph Maldonado-Passage, reached equal levels of fame and infamy with the release of the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King.” The show’s production team chronicled his rivalry with Baskin, who once successfully sued him for $1 million for trademark infringement. As seen on the show, Exotic publicly floated lurid theories that Baskin murdered her missing ex-husband. (She has repeatedly denied allegations.)

Exotic landed in federal court when prosecutors charged him with attempting to have Baskin killed. According to the government, the defendant reached out to handyman Allen Glover to carry out the alleged plot. (Glover’s employers, Exotic-rivals Jeff and Lauren Lowe, called the would-be hitman the “sweetest” guy, and Glover claimed he never planned on carrying out any attack on Baskin.)

A jury convicted Exotic of two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.

He garnered significant public fascination after the release of “Tiger King.” The charismatic, gay, mullet-wearing, polygamous, wannabe-politician zookeeper was the most attention-grabbing figure in a Netflix show full of attention-grabbing figures.

His attorneys argued with only modest success that his sentence should have been adjusted in a more substantial manner.

“This Court should vary downwardly from the guidelines due to imperfect entrapment, sentencing manipulation, and outrageous government conduct, which should be considered under” relevant federal law, Exotic’s attorneys argued in a September 21, 2021 sentencing memorandum — filed after the Tenth Circuit ordered new proceedings.

Defense attorneys also said government agents, including with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the FBI, “made it their mission to create . . . an intolerable degree of governmental participation in the criminal enterprise alleged” against Exotic at trial.

“Federal Agent Matthew Bryant, with the help of Jeff Lowe and others, succeeded in securing the indictment against Mr. Maldonado-Passage by threatening witnesses, concealing and destroying evidence, and fabricating wildlife violations,” Exotic’s attorneys continued.

Indeed, according to the defense sentencing memo, Lowe indicated in a 2018 interview that he could “completely f*ing set him up” with reference to Exotic.

“Unfortunately for Mr. Maldonado-Passage, that is exactly what happened,” the defense filing continued.  “The question now before this court is how to resentence a person who stands before it for offenses that happened years ago due to the influence and suggestion of others, specifically the FBI agents and informants who devised the murder for hire plot.”

The defense ultimately asked for a sentence “significantly below” the one contemplated by federal advisory guidelines.  It did not suggest a specific term of years.

Prosecutors said during their Oct. 19, 2021 filing that they were refusing to suggest a particular sentence.  They denied Exotic’s “claims involving sufficiency of the evidence, entrapment, and outrageous government conduct” and said “a resentencing hearing is not the proper forum for reviewing these speculative claims or the propriety of [the] conviction.”

“If Defendant wishes to challenge his conviction based on claims of entrapment or outrageous government conduct, there are other avenues and forums suited to conduct that inquiry, including raising these arguments in a motion for new trial,” prosecutors wrote.

Joe Exotic’s legal team said in a press conference on Friday that it now plans to attack the underlying conviction.

Exotic also recently announced having cancer.

[Booking photo via Santa Rosa County Jail]

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