An appeals court in Ohio has overturned the convictions of 16 Amish people who were found guilty of hate crimes related to hair-cutting attacks in 2011.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati announced its decision Aug. 27. Convictions of perjury, conspiracy and obstructing justice — non-hate crimes — were not overturned.
In 2011, 10 men and six women carried out five retaliatory beard-cutting attacks on members of Amish communities with whom they disagreed over a series of excommunications. Since the groups had religious disagreements, prosecutors defined the actions as hate crimes and the case went to federal court.
Samuel Mullet, leader of the “Bergholz Clan” in eastern Ohio, received a 15-year sentence. Other sentences ranged from one to seven years. Some members had already been released after the 2013 sentencing.
During the original trial, defense lawyers argued an inter-family dispute escalated to haircuts, but not to attacks on other people because of their religion.
An appeals court majority ruled the original court’s instructions to the jury were too broad. Opinions released by the justices reveal the case hinged on divided definitions of “because of.”
While federal prosecutors defined the phrase as perceiving religion to be a significant motivating factor, defendants argued the federal statute holds that a hate crime requires religion to be the reason for the action.
“Even ostensible faith leaders, whether Samuel Mullet or Henry VIII, may do things, including committing crimes or even creating a new religion, for irreligious reasons,” wrote judge Jeffrey Sutton for the majority.
The dissenting judge said there was minimal evidence that nonreligious motives were involved.
Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, wrote in an Aug. 29 Time article that the convictions’ reversal upends the federal statute definition for a religiously motivated hate crime.
“The district court used a broader, less restrictive wording at the trial to define the motives driving the Amish hate crimes,” he wrote. “The appellate court’s opinion is a more narrow interpretation of the meaning of the words ‘because of,’ suggesting that the crimes may not have happened solely for religious motives.”
Kraybill wrote that “while this all might seem like splitting legal hairs over Amish beards,” the decision has repercussions for victims of all kinds of hate crimes.
“If the appellate court’s restrictive interpretation this week remains unchallenged, it will make prosecution of federal hate crimes more difficult in the future because establishing a single predominant motive in the context of an attack is quite challenging,” he wrote.