Bozelko column: Is ‘Tiger King’s’ Joe Exotic innocent?

By Chandra Bozelko - More Content Now - USA TODAY NETWORK

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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A year ago March 20, Netflix introduced quarantined souls to Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic. Maulings, mullets and murder plots transfixed viewers when nothing else except a moving plague was happening. In January 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Scott L. Palk sentenced Maldonado-Passage to 22 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of two counts of murder-for-hire, eight counts of violating the Lacey Act for falsifying wildlife records, and nine counts of violating the Endangered Species Act.

But there are problems with the case against Joe Exotic, serious ones that call the integrity of his convictions into question. For one, it’s not clear that Maldonado-Passage ever abused animals or killed them in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Killing an animal is not always abuse. Unfortunately, just because an act is gruesome doesn’t make it unethical or illegal.

John Reinke, the former manager of the G.W. Zoo - or the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma - explained it when he said “People don’t look at the big picture ... We had a protocol that said if we couldn’t get the vet and we needed to take care of something, that we could euthanize them with a bullet. It’s more humane to euthanize him with a bullet, it’s quick. ... Everybody thinks it’s (euthanizing a tiger by injection) humane. They need to watch it one time and see how humane it is. Sometimes they go into seizures. It’s not always pretty. A bullet to the head is instant and it’s done.”

But it’s not just Reinke saying this. The American Veterinary Medical Association agrees. In its 2020 Edition of Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals the association says a “properly placed gunshot can cause immediate insensibility and a humane death. Under some conditions, a gunshot may be the only practical method of euthanasia.”

The Endangered Species Act outlaws killing protected species. There’s one exception, although it’s not specifically enumerated in the act, it’s common sense: euthanasia. Just because an animal is endangered and protected that doesn’t mean that it’s right to keep it alive if it’s suffering. I haven’t found any laws that prohibit euthanizing a protected species if it’s in an emergency state. Certain state Departments of Natural Resources appear to allow euthanasia of endangered species with state or federal permission, depending on the animal’s status.

And that’s where Maldonado-Passage’s case gets hinky. Trial transcripts show that the federal government was dedicated to showing the jury that tigers were healthy at the time of death; if shooting a tiger regardless of its health status was an issue of strict liability, prosecutors wouldn’t have done that. The tigers are protected by the Endangered Species Act; that’s undisputed. It’s also undisputed that no one can kill a species protected by the law unless it’s done to end terminal distress.

What’s disputed is whether the tigers were moribund enough to require euthanasia. That must be done under the supervision of a veterinarian, and, according to Joanne Green, a Wynnewood, Oklahoma, vet who established a protocol of care for the facility, the G.W. Zoo had an emergency protocol in place that allowed Maldonado-Passage to euthanize tigers via gunshot in emergency situations. At trial, Green did testify that she was informed of only one instance of emergency euthanasia.

Maldonado-Passage’s protest here is that the tigers were terminally ill and suffering. The government maintains they weren’t. The evidence that would break that tie was intentionally left in the ground by federal agents.

According to trial testimony, Special Agent James Markley with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dug up the five euthanized tigers, ostensibly in an effort to prove that it wasn’t euthanasia; Maldonado-Passage had admitted to shooting them. But instead of transporting the tigers’ entire bodies to the pathologist for a necropsy (an autopsy performed on an animal), they decapitated the tiger carcasses and provided only the heads for forensic analysis.

Dr. Tabitha Viner, a forensic veterinary pathologist with National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab in Ashland, Oregon, testified that if she had the entire bodies of these tigers, she could have examined them for evidence of disease. Without the bodies, she couldn’t reach a conclusion about euthanasia.

I would expect that investigators would have exhumed the whole tiger to disprove what the accused was saying. But they intentionally chose to leave behind this potentially exculpatory evidence, which may be a “Brady violation.” Under the Supreme Court’s 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors are duty-bound to disclose, prior to trial, any and all evidence that could undercut their case . If the prosecution doesn’t turn that information over to the defense, it violates the defendant’s constitutional rights.

When it comes to Brady violations, many legal scholars agree that if missing evidence undermines confidence in a trial result, then the convictions won from the suppression of that evidence should be vacated.

It’s not clear where the tiger bodies are now. Testimony from Markley suggests that the carcasses were probably left in the ground after the 2018 exhumation. Carole Baskin, Maldonado-Passage’s archenemy and founder of Big Cat Rescue, owns that land now.

Even if these convictions were vacated today, it wouldn’t spring Maldonado-Passage from custody. In fact, it wouldn’t even reduce his sentence since all nine of the convictions for violating the Endangered Species Act received concurrent sentences, which means that Maldonado-Passage serves all nine of the sentences at the same time. In terms of penalty, clearing him of this animal abuse accomplishes nothing.

But in terms of public perception, it may accomplish everything. The taint that animal abuse allegations bring to any criminal case is severe. In an interview with Law and Crime, a juror from the case, “Kristin,” said she thought the animal abuse allegations were “the worst part of the trial” - and this was a case involving people retaining hit men to take out their enemies.

Sylvia Corkill, a local TV reporter who covered Maldonado-Passage’s trial, nailed it in the Netflix series: “In the news we talk about shootings and killings every day, but people will protest, and they will not tolerate animal abuse. It was almost strategic to bring all these charges at the same time.”

The shootings of the five tigers are the only allegations of abuse against Maldonado-Passage; the remaining counts of violations of the Endangered Species Act deal with his selling the tigers. The remaining charges regarding animals are non-violent and address selling tigers over state lines, and making misrepresentations on the paperwork for those sales.

If those five charges of shooting tigers weren’t presented to the jury, United States v. Joseph Maldonado-Passage might have been a very different case - with a very different result.

Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.