By Aron Solomon
While social media is abuzz with fake news about a new trial for the person/persona known as Joe Exotic, the reality is that he – Joseph Maldonado-Passage – will simply be re-sentenced for his murder-for-hire conviction.
In United States v. Maldonado-Passage, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit was asked to consider the claim of the appellant, Mr. Maldonado-Passage, who disputed his murder-for-hire convictions. From the opinion of the court, written by Judge Phillips:
“…arguing that the district court erred by allowing Baskin, a listed government witness, to attend the entire trial proceedings. He also disputes his sentence, arguing that the trial court erred by not grouping his two murder-for-hire convictions in calculating his advisory Guidelines range. On this second point, he contends that the Guidelines required the district court to group the two counts because they involved the same victim and two or more acts or transactions that were connected by a common criminal objective: murdering Baskin.”
In an interesting twist, while the appellate court rejected the claim that Baskin should not have been allowed to attend Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s trial as she hadn’t suffered any physical harm from his crimes, they did accept the claim that the trial court erred in failing to bundle his convictions.
Lauren Scardella, a Southern New Jersey attorney, explains:
“Generally, in a criminal matter, when the court considers counts separately instead of considering them together, the sentence is longer. That’s what the Tenth Circuit is saying here with the Joe Exotic case – that the trial court needed to bundle together his convictions when he was sentenced.”
Social media is also enamored today with what is a forced and artificial comparison between Mr. Maldonado-Passage’s re-sentencing and Bill Cosby being set free. While the common factual basis for comparing these two cases is that both men are celebrities, there is no valid legal basis.
Mr. Cosby had his conviction overturned on the questionable grounds of a prior agreement with a Pennsylvania prosecutor that, in exchange for his testimony in a civil suit against him, Mr. Cosby could not be tried for the same issue in a criminal trial. This agreement with an elected prosecutor who was in office prior to the prosecutor who tried Mr. Cosby’s criminal case was never put into writing but was determined by the court as important to the expectations of society and to other parties to legal proceedings who reach similar accords.
So while the person many people once saw as the comedy king walked free on a legal procedure technicality, the tiger king’s reprieve is limited to a shorter sentence. By failing to bundle together the two murder-for-hire convictions, the trial court judge’s sentencing advisory guidelines were 262-327 months. Now, with the convictions correctly bundled together, the re-sentencing guidelines are 210-262 months. For someone such as Mr. Maldonado-Passage currently serving a 22-year sentence, this approximately 22% reduction in the sentencing guidelines could mean a 4-year sentence reduction.
When we add the current Britney Spears legal morass to this case and that of Bill Cosby, we see that the feeding frenzy that is social and traditional media often works itself into a lather before looking to the law for guidance. The law is always the best place to start because while people’s strong opinions are the stuff of cute headlines such as the one for this article, neither headlines nor opinion should have the power to sway the law.