The 22-year prison sentence given to Joe Exotic, the central character in the popular Netflix series “Tiger King,” was vacated as improper on Wednesday by a federal appeals court that affirmed his conviction but ordered him resentenced for hiring people to kill his nemesis, Carole Baskin.
Joe Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, was sentenced to prison last year after he twice tried to hire people — including an undercover F.B.I. agent — to kill Ms. Baskin, a self-proclaimed animal-rights activist who had criticized his big cat zoo’s treatment of animals.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled in favor of Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s appeal that his sentence was too long. He argued that a Federal District Court in Oklahoma did not group his two murder-for-hire convictions when his sentence was calculated. If the court had grouped the two counts together instead of considering the counts for separate sentences, his prison term could have been as low as 17 and a half years, according to the court ruling.
In addition to two counts of murder-for-hire, Mr. Maldonado-Passage, 58, was found guilty of falsifying wildlife records and violating the Endangered Species Act for his role in trafficking and killing tigers. The court on Wednesday upheld his convictions.
In a recording his lawyers provided to The Times, Mr. Maldonado-Passage said after the ruling that he believed his original sentence was “absolute crap.” He also said that Ms. Baskin said she would help him get out of prison if he supported the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a congressional bill limiting the trade of big cats.
Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s lawyer for the appeal, Brandon Sample, said in a statement on Wednesday that he was optimistic that the court’s decision was the first of many victories for his client.
“I knew when I agreed to represent Joe that an appeal would be difficult,” Mr. Sample said, “but I also knew that the law was on Joe’s side.”
The contentious relationship between Mr. Maldonado-Passage and Ms. Baskin, 60, was one of the main plot lines of “Tiger King.” He owned a zoo, the G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla., that housed lions, tigers and big cat crossbreeds, which Ms. Baskin condemned, prosecutors said. Ms. Baskin operated her own big cat facility in Florida, but she described hers as a sanctuary that did not crossbreed big cats.
The feud escalated when Mr. Maldonado-Passage renamed his cat shows “Big Cat Rescue Entertainment,” a name similar to Ms. Baskin’s sanctuary, “Big Cat Rescue.” Ms. Baskin won a $1 million lawsuit against him over the name dispute, and he filed for bankruptcy because he could not afford his legal fees, prosecutors said.
“It was a rivalry made in heaven,” the court ruling said.
Mr. Maldonado-Passage decided to retaliate by hiring two people in 2017 to kill Ms. Baskin in Florida, a federal jury found. He paid his zoo employee, Alan Glover, $3,000 to travel to Tampa and cut off Ms. Baskin’s head.
But Mr. Glover “got no further than partying on Florida beaches,” the appeals court ruling said.
A month later, Mr. Maldonado-Passage offered a $10,000 payment to a man who turned out to be an undercover F.B.I. agent. He was arrested in 2018.
“Despite all his efforts, Maldonado-Passage’s murderous plans failed,” the court ruling said.
Mr. Maldonado-Passage now awaits a new sentence as he languishes in a Texas prison, the same place where he tried and failed to persuade President Donald Trump to pardon him. He’s hoping that President Biden will free him.
“President Biden, if you are listening,” Mr. Maldonado-Passage said in the recording, “this is the time that you need to be a world hero and sign that pardon.”
John M. Phillips, another lawyer for Mr. Maldonado-Passage, said in a statement that his team has new evidence that could change the outcome of the case. The lawyer claims that Ms. Baskin’s husband, Howard Baskin, had spoken years ago with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about infiltrating Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s zoo.
“People should know what they saw in television isn’t the full truth,” Mr. Phillips said. “It isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.”
Mr. Baskin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
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