From Tiger King to Bernie Madoff, inmates find ally in lawyer Brandon Sample

A worker arrives at his office in the Canary Wharf business district in London February 26, 2014.. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
  • Sample argued "Joe Exotic" appeal decided Wednesday
  • Sentencing reformer and clemency advocate also represents Silk Road mastermind

(Reuters) - What do Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, "Tiger King" Joe Exotic, and the dark web buccaneer known as Dread Pirate Roberts all have in common?

Stuck behind bars, they all turned to sentencing reformer Brandon Sample.

Sample, a Rutland, Vermont-based attorney, argued before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January in an effort to get Joseph Maldonado-Passage's murder-for-hire conviction and sentence tossed.

Known as "Joe Exotic," Maldonado-Passage garnered fame last year when Netflix featured his Oklahoma private zoo and rivalry with Florida big cat rescue activist Carole Baskin in the series "Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness."

Sample was only partially successful. On Wednesday, the 10th Circuit upheld Maldonado-Passage's conviction on two counts of hiring hitmen to kill Baskin, though it vacated his 22-year sentence and remanded his case for new sentencing. The appellate court held the trial judge erred in applying sentencing guidelines by not grouping the two murder-plot counts as one.

Maldonado-Passage did not appeal his conviction on separate counts of wildlife crimes.

Sample wasn't available for an interview. In a statement, he said he was pleased with the court's ruling and "optimistic that the decision today is but one of many more victories to come for Joe – and his eventual freedom."

As for how he finds clients, he said "people just tend to reach out" based on his record of overturning convictions and sentences.

An advocate for criminal justice reform, Sample pushed for Madoff's early release from prison after he was sentenced to 150 years in prison for swindling thousands of individuals, charities, pension funds and hedge funds.

Although Madoff was dying of kidney failure, a federal judge rejectedSample's bid to win Madoff's compassionate release. Madoff died in prison in April.

"Bernie, up until his death, lived with guilt and remorse for his crimes," Sample said in a statement at the time.

Sample is currently representing Ross Ulbricht, the alleged mastermind behind the online drug marketplace known as Silk Road, in a federal lawsuit filed in May.

Ulbricht, who operated under the alias "Dread Pirate Roberts," was sentenced in 2015 to life in prison after a federal jury in New York found him guilty of charges including distributing drugs through the internet.

Ulbricht is suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons, alleging that his inability to communicate with his father through email violates his religious freedom.

Sample has had his own legal battle with the federal government. In October, he sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons after it blocked his four-year-old newsletter on prison issues from being emailed to more than 6,700 federal inmates.

Sample alleged an issue of his newsletter was blocked because it informed inmates they were entitled to receive the $1,200 stimulus payment the U.S. doled out through the CARES Act. Sample dismissed his own lawsuit later that month.

A Vermont Law School graduate, Sample practices out of his solo law firm, Brandon Sample PLC, in the small central Vermont city of Rutland, and cites presidential pardons and commutation petitions among his specialties.

Maldonado-Passage sought a pardon from outgoing President Donald Trump, but failed to secure one.

Read more:

Tiger King's murder-for-hire conviction upheld by appeals court

Disgraced Ponzi scheme architect Bernie Madoff dies in prison at 82

Bernard Madoff fails to win compassionate release from prison

U.S. Supreme Court turns away Silk Road website founder's appeal

Reporting by David Thomas

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David Thomas reports on the business of law, including law firm strategy, hiring, mergers and litigation. He is based out of Chicago. He can be reached at and on Twitter @DaveThomas5150.