(NBC News) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday ordered that the star of "Tiger King" be resentenced in the murder-for-hire plot to kill Carole Baskin, saying an error when the prison term was imposed made the guidelines longer than they should have been.
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the zookeeper also known as Joe Exotic, was sentenced to 22 years in prison in January 2020 for two murder-for-hire counts as well as counts dealing with endangered wildlife.
The two murder-for-hire counts should have been grouped together when calculating sentencing because they shared the same goal, the murder of Baskin, the panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
Not grouping them raised advisory sentencing guidelines from 17 1/2 years to 21.8 years in prison to a maximum of 27 1/4 years, the appeals court ruling says.
Maldonado-Passage was found guilty of twice hiring people to kill Baskin, an animal rights activist and critic of his exotic animal park in Oklahoma who had successfully sued the business. He was also convicted of violating federal wildlife laws, including charges related to the killing of five tigers.
Lawyers for Maldonado-Passage said that Wednesday's ruling means that the prison sentence will be reduced.
"I am optimistic that the decision today is but one of many more victories to come for Joe — and his eventual freedom," Brandon Sample, an appellate lawyer for Maldonado-Passage, said in a statement.
Maldonado-Passage has maintained his innocence. Last year, he requested a pardon from then-President Donald Trump, but Trump did not grant one.
Maldonado-Passage is at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, according to federal jail records.
In a recorded phone call released by his attorneys, he said he was glad the original sentence, which he said "was absolute crap to start with," was vacated.
John M. Phillips, who leads Maldonado-Passage's criminal and litigation team, said he will be filing motions that he said will reveal new evidence and examples of government misconduct.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals noted in a statement that the appeals court upheld the convictions.
“'Joe Exotic' still has many years in prison ahead of him," Debbie Metzler, associate director of captive animal law enforcement for the PETA Foundation, said in the statement.