A federal appeals court Wednesday overturned the hate-crimes convictions of Amish sect leader Sam Mullet and 15 of his followers, all of whom were found guilty in 2012 of chopping the hair and beards of other Amish in Ohio.
A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that the jury received improper instructions from U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster regarding how much weight to give religion as a motive in the attacks.
The decision could mean new trials for the defendants.
Lawyers for Mr. Mullet and the other defendants, all but one related to him, have long argued that the 2009 federal hate-crimes statute was improperly applied by the Justice Department.
Federal prosecutors said the attacks were carried out in retaliation against other Amish who had defied Mr. Mullet’s edicts as an iron-fisted sect leader in the community of Bergholz.
But the defendants’ lawyers have said for years that personal disputes, and not religion, were the motivating factors and challenged the constitutionality of the hate-crimes statute as too broad.
Two of the three appellate judges agreed, saying prosecutors should have had to prove that the assaults would not have occurred if not 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.
“We are relieved and satisfied with today’s decision, but Mr. Mullet is far from being out of the woods,” said his federal public defender, Edward Bryan. “We do hope and pray that today’s decision from the Court of Appeals will be a step in the right direction, resulting in Mr. Mullet’s eventual return to his family and his community.”
His co-counsel, public defender Wendi Overmyer, said she was pleased with the results. In earlier filings, she had criticized the judge for telling jurors that they could consider other motives beyond religious hatred as triggers for the attacks.
She said that the hate-crimes law requires a direct connection between motive and act, but that the government did not prove that connection.
“The victims were not chosen because they were Amish; rather, the victims and the defendants both happen to be Amish,” she had written. “The incidents were not based on anti-Amish bias.”
She said the victims were involved in “long-standing” family disputes with other community members over such issues as child custody and parental-child arguments that did not involve religious differences.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Cleveland issued a statement saying: “We respectfully disagree with the two judges who reversed the defendants’ hate-crime convictions based on a jury instruction. We remain in awe of the courage of the victims in this case, who were subject to violent attacks by the defendants. We are reviewing the opinion and considering our options.”
The Justice Department could retry the defendants but will probably first ask for a review by the entire 6th Circuit.
“It's kind of a waiting game now,” Ms. Overmyer said.
Mr. Mullet, 69, was convicted of orchestrating a series of beard- and hair-cutting assaults in 2011 on those who opposed him and was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.
The case initially made national news because it shed light on the seemingly placid world of the Amish and again later when it became a touchstone for hate-crimes legislation and the powers of the federal government.
Some 40 civil rights and ethnic groups, led by the Anti-Defamation League, had filed a brief with the 6th Circuit asking that the convictions be upheld.
But other civil libertarian groups have opposed hate-crimes laws, arguing that they essentially “criminalize thought.”
Among Mr. Mullet’s claims was that the federal government should not have been involved in the first place.
At best, he and his lawyers argued, the prosecution should have been handled as an assault case in state court.
But Judge Polster obviously disagreed. At sentencing, he told Mr. Mullet: “You tried to ram your religious beliefs down the throats of your victims.”
At trial, the FBI and numerous witnesses said Mr. Mullet had total control over his community, including disciplining its members by putting them in chicken coops and having sex with other men’s wives to “counsel” them in marital relations.
Torsten Ove: email@example.com or 412-263-1510. First Published August 27, 2014 2:57 PM