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It's the 10th Circuit's Turn to Deal with 'Tiger King' Joe Exotic

KEENESBURG, CO - APRIL 05: A pair of the 39 tigers rescued in 2017 from Joe Exotic's G.W. Exotic Animal Park relax at the Wild Animal Sanctuary on April 5, 2020 in Keenesburg, Colorado. Exotic, star of the wildly successful Netflix docu-series Tiger King, is currently in prison for a murder-for-hire plot and surrendered some of his animals to the Wild Animal Sanctuary. The Sanctuary cares for some 550 animals on two expansive reserves in Colorado. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
By Laura Temme, Esq. on January 21, 2021 | Last updated on August 10, 2021

Although former President Donald Trump issued pardons to several celebrities on his way out of office this week, one person was left disappointed that his plea for a pardon went unheard: Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as Joe Exotic. The star of Netflix's 'Tiger King' has been jockeying for a pardon for months. In December, he sued the Department of Justice for failing to present his petition for a pardon directly to the then-president.

But, despite reports that the 57-year-old had a limo waiting outside the federal prison where he's currently serving 22 years, Trump's time as president came to an end with no clemency for Joe Exotic.

So what's a Tiger King to do? Why, go back to the court of appeals of course.

Tiger King Argues His Sentence Was Excessive

Maldonado-Passage was convicted in Oklahoma City in 2019 for, among other federal crimes, trying to hire a hitman to kill his rival, Carole Baskin. He was ultimately sentenced to 22 years on two counts of murder-for-hire, nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act, and eight counts of falsifying wildlife records in violation of the Lacey Act. His attorney, Brandon Sample, argues that the district court should have grouped the two murder-for-hire counts together, and failing to do so resulted in an excessive sentence.

"The district court found the counts should not be grouped because they involved different kinds of harm, different dates, and different proposed hitmen," Sample said at oral arguments. "We believe the district court erred in reaching that determination."

Sample relied on a 1991 case, United States v. Norman, where the 10th Circuit held that a defendant who called in multiple bomb threats to an airline should have had his counts grouped for sentencing. But the panel seemed unconvinced, pointing out the differences in potential harm to the victim in each case. Judge Harris Hartz said the victim in the bomb threat case would only "have been inconvenienced" with a pat-down.

"Baskin would have lost her life," Judge Hartz concluded.

"Hope Springs Eternal"

The panel also grilled Sample on whether, if the case were remanded, it would make much of a difference to Maldonado-Passage's sentence. If the counts had been grouped, sentencing guidelines would call for 210 to 262 months in prison. Without grouping, the guideline is 262 to 327 months. Maldonado-Passage was sentenced to 264 months.

"So two months is what we're talking about, theoretically," pointed out Judge Paul Kelly. Sample explained it was his client's hope that on remand the district court would aim closer to the low end of the guidelines, which could make his sentence several years shorter.

"Hope springs eternal," Judge Kelly replied, garnering a chuckle from the rest of the panel.

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