Amish beard-cutting hate-crime convictions overturned
A US appeals court panel has overturned the hate-crime convictions of 16 Amish men and women in beard and hair-cutting attacks on fellow members of their faith in Ohio, ruling that religion wasn't their driving motive.
A sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals panel sided with arguments brought by lawyers for the Amish, convicted two years ago in five attacks in 2011.
The attacks were in apparent retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced the authoritarian style of Sam Mullet, leader of the Bergholz community in eastern Ohio.
In a deeply divided decision, two of the three judges on the panel concluded that the jury received incorrect instructions about how to weigh the role of religion in the attacks. They also said prosecutors should have had to prove that the assaults wouldn't have happened but for religious motives.
"When all is said and done, considerable evidence supported the defendants' theory that interpersonal and intra-family disagreements, not the victims' religious beliefs, sparked the attacks," the judges wrote.
They said it was unfair to conclude that "because faith permeates most, if not all, aspects of life in the Amish community, it necessarily permeates the motives for the assaults in this case".
Church leaders, "whether Samuel Mullet or Henry VIII, may do things, including committing crimes or even creating a new religion, for irreligious reasons," they wrote.
Mullet has served nearly three years of his 15-year sentence, while seven other men in the community were serving between five and seven years in prison.
The other eight Amish convicted in the attacks either already served one year in prison and have returned to their communities or were about to be released from two-year sentences.
Defence lawyer Wendi Overmyer, who represented the Amish, said she likely would be seeking the release of Mullet and the seven other men as the government considered its appeal options.
Amish, who live in rural communities organised around bishops, dress and live simply and shun many aspects of the modern age such as electricity, refrigeration and computers. They don't drive and often get around in horse-drawn buggies or by paying drivers to shuttle them places.
They believe the Bible instructed women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards once they marry. Cutting it was considered shameful and doing so forcibly was considered offensive.
In a strong dissenting opinion of the sixth Circuit's ruling, Judge Edmund Sargus wrote that religion was a clear motive for the 2011 attacks and that the hate-crime convictions were appropriate, especially against Mullet.
Sargus quoted several statements made by Mullet acknowledging his religious motivations, including in an interview in which he said that the goal of the hair-cutting was to send a message to the Amish community and that he should be allowed to punish people who break church laws.
The convictions of members of the Bergholz community marked the first involving religion under a federal hate crime statute enacted in 2009 in response to the murders of Matthew Shepard because he was gay and James Byrd because he was black.
Attorneys for the Amish defendants have argued that the statute was meant for egregious offences motivated by race, sexual orientation and religion, not for what their clients did.
"The impetus behind the hate-crime statute, the Matthew Shepard tragedy and James Bird - those are heinous, egregious, tragic crimes, and I think in responding to those crimes, (the statute) is a little overbroad, and I think it can have an effect that perhaps Congress didn't intend," Overmyer said.
"This is a really good case that exemplifies where that line can be drawn of what is a hate crime and what is not a hate crime."
The ruling would make it more difficult for federal prosecutors to obtain hate-crime convictions, because the court made it clear evidence must show the crime was based solely on religious hatred, said Ric Simmons, an Ohio State University law professor.
"It's always hard to prove state of mind or motive of a defendant," Simmons said.
"Now it's going to be even harder because you have to prove not only was this a reason why they did it, you have to prove this is essentially the only reason, or the motivating reason."
At sentencing, Judge Dan Aaron Polster said it was clear to him and the jury that the attacks were motivated by religion and that "anyone who says this is just a hair- and beard-cutting case wasn't paying any attention".