Joe Exotic catches a break: 22-year sentence will be reconsidered, likely shortened

A man with a mustache and cap sits in front of animal cages
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, is shown at his former Oklahoma zoo in 2013. Federal authorities seized 68 big cats from the zoo in May.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

A federal court decision just broke in favor of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joe Exotic: His 22-year sentence has been vacated and will be reconsidered. His conviction on charges of murder-for-hire and wildlife crime? That will stand.

“We affirm Maldonado-Passage’s conviction but vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing,” the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said Wednesday in a decision that pleased the former tiger owner’s attorney, as it will likely mean a shorter federal prison term.

Maldonado-Passage, who gained early-pandemic fame via the Netflix docuseries “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” was convicted on two counts of murder-for-hire against tiger rival Carole Baskin, which is where the sentencing issue arose.


The appeals court took issue with the district court’s failure to group the two murder-for-hire charges, even though Maldonado-Passage tried to hire two different men to kill Baskin.

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“Baskin was neither murdered multiple times nor assaulted multiple times during attempted murders,” court documents explained. “Her harm was one sustained, ongoing harm.” Maldonado-Passage’s actions were all connected to one “common criminal objective,” the court added.

“I am pleased with the appellate court’s decision in Joe’s case,” attorney Brandon Sample, who is representing Maldonado-Passage on appeal, told The Times in a statement Wednesday. “I knew when I agreed to represent Joe that an appeal would be difficult, but I also knew that the law was on Joe’s side. I am optimistic that the decision today is but one of many more victories to come for Joe — and his eventual freedom.”

The former exotic zookeeper was convicted in 2019 and sentenced in January 2020. In March 2020, he was moved to FMC Forth Worth prison, where he has been serving his 264-month sentence. His team sought a pardon last year from former President Donald Trump but didn’t succeed.

The original sentence included nine years on each of the two murder-for-hire counts, to run consecutively, not concurrently. If the two counts are combined, Maldonado-Passage will likely see a significant reduction in his time behind bars.


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In other Exotic news, John Cameron Mitchell was seen for the first time in character as Maldonado-Passage while working on a “Joe Exotic” series for NBC, starring alongside Kate McKinnon as Baskin. According to Page Six, the series is set to run on NBC, Peacock and USA Network.

But another Maldonado-Passage project, shopped by CBS Studios and Imagine Television and set to star Nicolas Cage, has reportedly been shelved because the world has apparently moved on.

“I read two excellent scripts ... but I think Amazon ultimately felt that it was material that had become past tense because it took so long for it come together,” Cage told Variety Tuesday. “They felt at one point that it was lightning in a bottle, but that point has since faded into the distance and it’s no longer relevant.”

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