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‘Tiger King’ star asks 10th Circuit to toss sentence in murder-for-hire plot

An attorney representing jailed former zookeeper Joe Exotic argued before the federal appeals court that her client's prison sentence is unconstitutional.

(CN) — A three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit on Thursday heard oral arguments for the second time over the sentencing of ex-zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic from the hit Netflix docuseries "Tiger King."

A federal jury in Oklahoma found Maldonado-Passage guilty in 2019 of two counts of murder-for-hire charges, after the flamboyant zookeeper attempted to hire two people, one being an undercover FBI agent, to kill his rival and fellow tiger sanctuary operator Carol Baskin. In addition, Maldonado-Passage was found guilty of eight counts of violating the Lacy Act for falsifying wildlife records and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.

Molly Parmer, a criminal defense attorney representing Maldonado-Passage, told the appellate judges that the district court imposed an “unreasonable and unconstitutional sentence” when her client was resentenced in January of this year.

“It is solely Mr. Maldonado’s sentence that forms the basis of this appeal,” Parmer said Thursday.

Last year, the Denver-based appeals court overturned Maldonado-Passage’s initial 2020 sentence of 22 years in prison, finding that the two murder-for-hire charges should be grouped together and not considered separately for sentencing purposes, as the district court did. U.S. District Court Judge Scott L. Palk, a Donald Trump appointee, knocked 12 months off of Maldonado-Passage’s sentence in January, lowering it to 21 years behind bars.

Parmer argued that the sentence ordered by Palk essentially punished her client twice for the same crime, which is prohibited under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. Circuit Judges Carolyn McHugh, a Barack Obama appointee, and Bobby Baldock, a Ronald Reagan appointee, challenged Parmer’s argument and noted the court’s previous ruling in this case was to group the two murder-for-hire counts for sentencing.

“This court sent it back for grouping, that is the issue that we had in that case,” said Baldock. “Did the district court group the sentencings?”

“Yes your honor, the district court did group counts one and counts two," Parmer responded.

“So what’s left? The district court did what we said to do,” said Baldock.

The back and forth between Parmer and the panel continued, with the judges taking issue with the defense’s interpretation of the appeals court's previous ruling as well as the jury's finding that Maldonado-Passage attempted at two separate times to hire someone to kill Baskin.

Parmer claimed the two separate counts constitute a due process violation, as the attempts to hire a hitman made by Maldonado-Passage overlapped in time and should be considered a single count.

Arguing on behalf of the government, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Creager told the judges that they “hit the nail on the head" through their questioning of Parmer.

“This was a remand for resentencing and in the first appeal, this court affirmed the convictions and remanded for resentencing,” he said.

Creager explained that since Maldonado-Passage’s convictions have already been affirmed, he is not allowed to challenge the multiplicity of the counts he was charged with. He also argued the sentence Maldonado-Passage received was well within the guidelines of the crimes he was found guilty of committing. 

“At the end of the day, even if this court were to conclude that a lower sentence would have also been reasonable, that is simply not sufficient," said Creager. 

In her pleas to the court to rule in her client's favor, Parmer also asked the panel to assign the case to a different district court judge for the appearance of impartiality.

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Michael R. Murphy, a Bill Clinton appointee, rounded out the panel. The judges did not indicate when they would issue a ruling.

Maldonado-Passage, who is 59 years old and has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, remains hopeful of getting a lighter sentence. During his resentencing hearing at the lower court, he told the judge that “any sentence I get is a death sentence.” 

He was the fixture of the 2020 Netflix documentary series "Tiger King" that chronicled his life as an outspoken proprietor of a for-profit zoo, amateur musical artist and candidate for political office. The series also touched on the explosive relationship he had with Baskin, detailing the attempts he made to have her killed.

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