It’s only been a few weeks since Netflix introduced us to Joe Exotic, but it’s safe to say that he’s made a BIG impact on the public—and even, potentially, the heartstrings of the President of the United States.
On April 8, during a White House press conference concerning COVID-19, a New York Post journalist asked President Donald Trump if he’d watched Tiger King, and what he thinks about potentially pardoning the former zoo owner and big cat lover, who is currently behind bars (unclear how this is related to COVID, but we can all use the laugh). In the exchange, Trump asked other journalists to weigh in, before replying “I’ll take a look.”
President Trump: "Would you recommend a pardon?"
Jim @Acosta: "I'm not weighing in on Tiger King."
— CSPAN (@cspan) April 8, 2020
ICYMI, Tiger King—which was released on March 20—is a documentary series that follows the truly bonkers story of Exotic (a.k.a Joseph Maldonado-Passage), the former owner of the Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Memorial Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, who is currently serving a 22-year sentence for trying to hire a hit man to kill a rival animal rights activist Carole Baskin. Since the series began airing on Netflix, Exotic has become a public celebrity of sorts, with his mullet and barely-holding-on eyebrow ring pretty much pop culture canon at this point. Exotic claims he isn’t guilty of his charges.
During an April 6 interview on SirirusXM’s Jim Norton and Sam Roberts show, Donald Trump Jr. also talked about watching the hit show and Exotic, telling the hosts—who joked that perhaps his dad could have the zoo owner pardoned: “I don’t even know exactly what he was charged with. I watched the show but I don’t know exactly what he was guilty of or wasn’t. It doesn’t seem like he was totally innocent of anything. But when they’re saying, ‘We’re putting this guy away for 30 years,’ I’m saying, ‘That seems…sort of aggressive.’”
While we’re *fingers crossed* assuming, and TBH hoping, that Trump is just joking, honestly who’s to say with this administration? Regardless, now seems as good a time as any to remind everyone that we can’t just go around pardoning people because they make good TV—or because celebs are taking an interest in them.
There’s been a new light shed on the justice system, especially in the USA
If it feels like public interest in the issue of wrongful incarceration and the justice system has been growing, that’s probably because it is. “I think that two things have happened,” says Kerry Emmonds, executive director of Innocence Canada. “I think [there’s] been this growing conversation in the US at a political level around the criminal justice system and the many things that have created a system characterized by a lot of inequities towards visible minorities; and this dialogue around criminal justice reform is one part of it.”
And another part, Emmonds continues, comes from what she says is “an incredible increase in the amount of information available through popular culture.” Which probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise to most. It’s no secret that the past few years have seen a rise in any and all content true crime-related. Podcasts like My Favourite Murder, series about Ted Bundy and the proliferation of documentaries like Making a Murderer have put crime—and sleuthing—at the forefront of people’—especially women’s—minds. “People [are] using documentary and podcast forums to work through a case or investigate a case. And so what’s happened is, although I would say the vast majority of the activity has been in the States, because it’s so closely linked, it’s really bubbled up to Canada as well,” Emmonds says.
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“What we’re trying to do now in Canada is really ride the wave of that increase in public awareness around wrongful conviction and start alerting Canadians to the facts, and point out that this is a problem here, too,” she says. Innocence Canada—a non-profit that advocates for Canadians who have been wrongfully incarcerated—has helped exonerate 23 Canadians over its 27 years in operation. But, that’s only a drop in the bucket.
“What I will say is [that] I think—more often than not—our courts do get it right,” says Bhavan Sodhi, a senior staff lawyer and case management counsel for the org. But the organization currently has 95 homicide cases on their roster and 10 additional cases filed with the Federal Minister (meaning they’ve found evidence that said people in cases were wrongly convicted).
And it’s this proliferation in pop culture, as well as people like KKW who are helping shed light on these facts. Kim Kardashian West, specifically, has lobbied President Trump on the issue of prison reform and mass incarceration, advocating for the release and commutation of several individuals who were wrongfully convicted or received harsh sentences for drug-related crimes. In 2018, KKW was instrumental in having the sentence of 63-year-old Alice Johnson commuted. Johnson was serving a life sentence for a 1996 non-violent drug conviction. Most recently, Kardashian West helped in the early release of four people convicted of charges including murder.
And it *has* been super helpful
Lawmakers, and people like Emmonds and Sodhi, are grateful for the spotlight, because this kind of celeb publicity *is* helpful. Since announcing that she was going to pursue law and work on prison reform in April 2019, Kardashian West has helped commute the sentences for over 17 incarcerated people. And in Canada, similar celebrity support has directly benefitted organizations like Innocence Canada. Emmonds points to a December 2019 video series featuring Just Mercy‘s Michael B. Jordan. In the series of four PSAs, done in collab with Innocence Canada, Jordan talked about wrongful incarceration in Canada. “And essentially, within eight weeks, 2 million people saw these videos,” Emmonds says. “We reached more people in two weeks than we’ve reached in 25 years.” It was a big moment for the organization, she says, “because we’ve spent 25 years putting all of our energy resources into cases and not putting money in to awareness and engagement because money is so tight.”
“What we really saw was [that], if we create the right partnership, if we get the right people involved, if they’re willing to leverage their celebrity and the name of our cause, then we can at least get that over that first hurdle with Canadians, which is getting them to understand that wrongful conviction happen.”
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Especially with wrongful conviction cases, Emmonds says it can be a struggle to get people involved, in part because a lot of people may not understand these issues or organizations exist. So celebrity does help to shed light on these topics.
“So let me be the first to say that if Drake is sitting in his house in Toronto self-isolating as a result of COVID-19, and has any interest in discussing Innocence Canada and wrongful conviction, I would be more than happy to,” Emmonds says. (CC: Drake).
But there are also some downsides
But, as helpful as celebrity can be, in the words of Spiderman‘s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
“Celebrities can really shift the public perception on the problem of wrongful conviction,” Sodhi says. “But I think that type of advocacy or attention needs to be done really carefully because it’s such an influential tool.” Meaning, she says, that the information celebs are relaying needs to be accurate and evidence-based; “because a case that’s sensationalized is going to be placed under extreme scrutiny,” Sodhi says. “And you need to make sure that you’re not hurting the person’s claim.”
Not to mention the fact, Sodhi says, celeb media attention might actually have the opposite effect on whether or not a case is looked at again, where the Crown and police may feel pressure to actually uphold a conviction.
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And when it comes to Exotic specifically and the affect his celebrity might have on the likelihood of him being pardoned? While Sodhi and Emmonds can’t comment specifically on his case, “What I will say is that, if nothing else, the celebrity that he’s gained will really lend itself to people looking carefully at his case,” Sodhi says.