‘Tiger King’ Takes Fight for Freedom to 10th Circuit

After coming up short in his push for a presidential pardon, Joe Exotic told a federal appeals court panel his two-decade sentence is excessive because murder-for-hire counts were improperly grouped together.

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic, answers a question during an interview at his zoo in Wynnewood, Okla., in 2013. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

(CN) — Imprisoned “Tiger King” docuseries star Joe Exotic told a 10th Circuit panel Wednesday he was excessively sentenced to 22 years in federal prison for trying to hire a hitman to kill rival Carole Baskin, hours after his push for a last-minute pardon by outgoing President Donald Trump failed.

Exotic aka Joseph Maldonado-Passage, 57, was convicted in 2019 in Oklahoma City federal court on 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. Jurors concluded he tried to hire a hitman for $10,000 to kill rival tiger enthusiast Baskin.

Attorney Brandon Sample, of Rutland, Vermont, told the three-judge appeals court panel in Denver the trial court incorrectly grouped the two murder-for-hire counts against Exotic together, resulting in the excessive sentence.

“They involve different kinds of harm, with different dates and different proposed hitmen,” Sample said. “We believe the district court erred in that decision.”

Sample cited 10th Circuit precedent from a case involving a bomb threat being made before an airplane flight in arguing for the charges to be separated.

U.S. Circuit Judge Harris Hartz pointed out the differences in “potential harm” to the victims. He said the victim in the bomb threat case would only “have been inconvenienced” with a pat down.

“Baskin would have lost her life,” said Hartz, a George W. Bush appointee.

The judges grilled Sample on what the difference in Exotic’s sentence would be if they chose to remand the case for resentencing. He said Exotic faced a sentence of between 210 and 262 months with the counts grouped together, while the judges concluded he would face 262 to 267 months without grouping under federal sentencing guidelines.

“So two months is all we are talking about,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Gregory Phillips, a Barack Obama appointee.

Sample disagreed, stating his hope was that the trial judge would choose a shorter sentence within the revised sentencing guidelines on a remand.

“Hope springs eternal,” Phillips deadpanned, with the rest of the panel audibly chuckling.

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Joseph Kelly Jr., a George H.W. Bush appointee, joined Phillips and Hartz on the panel. The 10th Circuit is expected to rule on Exotic’s appeal later this year.

The hearing took place hours after Exotic failed to persuade the Trump administration to pardon or commute his sentence. He sued the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney last month in order to force his pardon request onto President Trump’s desk. The lawsuit claimed his request was rejected in September by the Justice Department without it being presented to Trump himself.

Exotic’s insistence on a pardon grew louder after Trump joked at a White House Covid-19 briefing last April that he would “take a look” at pardoning the reality television star.

“Do you think he did it? Are you on his side?” Trump asked reporters with a smile. “I’ll take a look at it. That’s Joe Exotic.”

“Tiger King” was a smash hit for Netflix during the early months of the pandemic, as over 34 million unique viewers streamed the show in the 10 days since its launch in March.

The show follows several of the eccentric personalities in the tiger enthusiast community and focuses on Exotic’s obsessive behavior towards rival Baskin after he entered into a $1 million settlement in a trademark case she filed against him.

Baskin has gotten the last laugh, as a federal judge has since awarded her control of Exotic’s former zoo property in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. U.S. District Judge Scott Palk ruled in June the 16.4-acre property was fraudulently transferred from Exotic to his mother to keep it away from Baskin.

Palk was the same federal judge who oversaw Exotic’s criminal trial. He also presides over a $93 million lawsuit Exotic filed, representing himself, against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Interior and several of his perceived enemies. He claims he is the victim of a vast conspiracy to take his animals away from him.

Attorney Francisco Hernandez, of Fort Worth, made headlines Tuesday when he readied a Dodge Ram limousine to pick Exotic up from nearby Federal Medical Center Fort Worth in anticipation of a pardon. His client has been held there since being moved from an Oklahoma jail due to the pandemic.

Exotic’s legal team had said he planned to get his hair done and go to McDonald’s for McRib sandwiches immediately upon release.

Hernandez said Wednesday his client is disappointed the pardon did not go through before Trump left office.

“It is the president’s constitutional right to pardon and we have to accept and respect his use of discretion,” he posted on Facebook. “Our mission is just and continues.”

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