Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic from the reality series Tiger King, will be heading back to court after a judge ordered his murder-for-hire sentences to be vacated. According to court documents, the U.S. Tenth District Court in Oklahoma granted Exotic’s appeal on a technicality. His legal team argued that the alleged target of his murder plots, big-cat activist Carole Baskin, was allowed to attend the criminal trial in 2019, even though she was listed as a government witness. The government countered that Baskin had a right to attend the trial under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, and the court agreed.
But in another move, Exotic’s lawyers objected to the fact that the two murder-for-hire convictions were sentenced separately. At the time, Exotic was convicted on the two counts of murder for hire, as well as various wildlife charges. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison, nine years for each murder-for-hire conviction and four years for the additional violations, including using interstate facilities in commission of a crime. His lawyers successfully argued that he was handed a much longer sentence (327 to 362 months, compared to 210 to 262 months) as a result.
Now, even though the convictions against Exotic remain, the sentence has been vacated, a win for Exotic, albeit a small one. The court basically said in its decision that Exotic “hired two different hitmen on two different occasions, though his ‘end, goal, or purpose,’ was the same. Thus, the acts or transactions of the two counts shared a common criminal objective — Baskin’s murder.”
“Accordingly,” the court said, “we affirm that conviction but vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.” The judge said the lower court erred by not grouping the two murder-for-hire counts, though he did not argue against the convictions themselves.
What this means is that Exotic will go back to court for new sentencing. What it doesn’t mean is that he’s a free man. Exotic will remain in custody until the new sentencing is determined.
The feud between Exotic and Baskin originally stemmed from her opposition to his breeding of lions and tigers for entertainment. She regularly protested his events over animal-abuse allegations. The rivalry intensified after Baskin, who owns Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, sued Exotic for copyright and trademark infringement, winning a million-dollar lawsuit.
The ruling led Exotic to wage war against Baskin on social media. At one point, Exotic posted a picture of himself posing in a coffin saying, “I bought my good friend in Florida a Christmas present.” He also shared a photo of a jar with a shrunken head made to look like Baskin. And then there was the video of Exotic firing a gun at a so-called “Carole blow-up doll.”
It all really heated up in 2017, however, when twice within several weeks Exotic tried to hire two different men to kill Baskin — one was an employee at his Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma, the other an undercover FBI agent. The park employee had agreed to accept $5,000 for “cut(ting) her head off,” the court said, though he never went through with the crime. The FBI agent, meanwhile, would inevitably gather enough evidence to take Exotic to court, where a jury found him guilty on all charges.
The story continues to live on not just in the courts, but also in Hollywood. While Nicolas Cage’s “Tiger King” project was recently shelved, a new film starring John Cameron Mitchell as Exotic and Kate McKinnon as Baskin is currently being filmed in Australia.