A federal judge is set to decide a new sentence Friday for “Tiger King” Joe Exotic after an appeals court ruled last year that the prison term he’s serving on a murder-for-hire conviction should be shortened.
Although supporters of Joe Exotic — whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage — are seeking his release from prison, it’s unlikely because federal guidelines suggest a sentence of 17 1/2 years to 22 years in prison.
Maldonado-Passage was expected to attend Friday’s sentencing in Oklahoma City after a judge approved his transfer from a federal medical center in Butner, North Carolina. Last month, attorneys for the former Oklahoma zookeeper said he was delaying prostate cancer treatment until after his resentencing.
The former zookeeper was sentenced in January 2020 to 22 years in prison after he was convicted of trying to hire two different men to kill animal welfare activist Carole Baskin. A three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Maldonado-Passage that the court should have treated them as one conviction at sentencing because they both involved the same goal of killing Baskin, who runs a rescue sanctuary for big cats in Florida and had criticized Maldonado-Passage’s treatment of animals.
Both were featured in Netflix’s “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” The show was a breakout hit as people were forced to stay home in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors said Maldonado-Passage offered $10,000 to an undercover FBI agent to kill Baskin during a recorded December 2017 meeting. In the recording, he told the agent, “Just like follow her into a mall parking lot and just cap her and drive off.” Maldonado-Passage’s attorneys have said their client — who once operated a zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) south of Oklahoma City — wasn’t being serious.
Maldonado-Passage, who maintains his innocence, also was convicted of killing five tigers, selling tiger cubs and falsifying wildlife records. His attorneys are asking for a lesser sentence than what the guidelines call for, alleging “imperfect entrapment, sentencing manipulation, and outrageous government conduct.”
“From decisions made in the initial stages of the investigation to charging decisions to overzealous sentencing recommendations, one thing remains clear: this case was about doing whatever it took to put Mr. Maldonado-Passage behind bars for as long as possible,” his attorneys wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Federal prosecutors said in court records that they would defer recommending a new sentence for Maldonado-Passage because of the allegations he raised.
“In the unlikely event that any of these claims withstand scrutiny and ultimately are determined to be credible, those developments could impact the United States’ ultimate sentencing recommendation” because the prosecutors are obligated to investigate them, U.S. Attorney Robert Troester wrote.
By JILL BLEED and SEAN MURPHY
Bleed reported from Little Rock, Arkansas.