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

REUTERS/Jason Lee (CHINA)
  • 10th Circuit upheld convictions on two counts of murder for hire
  • Trial court correct to allow target of plot to attend trial
  • Case remanded for resentencing because of error in calculating sentencing guidelines

(Reuters) - Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the eccentric wildlife park owner whose plot to murder an animal rights activist was chronicled in Netflix's "Tiger King," saw his conviction on charges related to the scheme upheld by a federal appeals court on Wednesday.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an Oklahoma federal judge was correct to allow Florida big cat rescue activist Carole Baskin to attend the entirety of Maldonado-Passage's 2019 trial, despite her role as a witness in the case.

The court, however, vacated Maldonado-Passage's sentence on a technicality and ordered the trial court to resentence him.

John Phillips, an attorney for Maldonado-Passage, said in a statement that the court should reduce his sentence on remand.

He also vowed further challenges to the conviction, including motions raising newly-discovered evidence and alleging government misconduct.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oklahoma City, which tried the case, did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Wednesday.

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

In addition to two counts of hiring hitmen to kill Baskin, Maldonado-Passage, 58, was convicted of 17 counts of wildlife crimes at trial. He is serving a 22-year prison sentence.

He appealed only the murder-for-hire counts and his sentence, arguing Baskin was not entitled to attend the trial as a victim because she was not physically harmed in the murder plot.

U.S. Circuit Court Judges Gregory Phillips and Paul Kelly Jr rejected that argument on Monday, saying victims can also suffer emotional and financial harm.

The court also found that the trial judge had erred in calculating the sentencing guidelines by not grouping the two murder-plot counts as one. Judges are not bound by the federal sentencing guidelines, but are required to consider them.

"Her harm was one sustained, ongoing harm. She learned that Maldonado-Passage intended to have her killed and lived with that fear," the court said of Baskin.

The guidelines the judge used at trial had called for a sentence of between 22 and 27 years. The court sent the case back for resentencing, saying the appropriate guidelines call for a sentence between 17-½ and around 22 years.

U.S. Circuit Judge Harris Hartz concurred in the opinion.

The case is U.S. v. Maldonado-Passage, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-6010.

For Maldonado-Passage: John Phillips of the Law Offices of Phillips & Hunt and Brandon Sample

For the government: Steven Creager and Amanda Green of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Oklahoma

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Authorities seize 68 big cats from Oklahoma's 'Tiger King' animal park

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Jody Godoy reports on banking and securities law. Reach her at jody.godoy@thomsonreuters.com