Summary: An appellate court overturned the hate crime convictions of several Amish defendants who cut the hair and beards of other Amish in 2011 in a retaliatory attack for allegedly disrespecting a community leader.
Amish men are known for their long beards that sit well below their shoulders, and Amish women are recognized for their long hair, wrapped and pinned into buns. The Amish believe that the Bible teaches them that men should grow beards and women should grow their hair out once they are married. To cut one’s hair or beard is shameful. Forcibly cutting one’s locks is downright offensive to the Amish.
The Amish are famous for their rejection of the comforts of modern day society. They are content in rural communities, and dress simply. To the rest of the country’s fascination, electricity, refrigeration, and household electronics are unnecessary in Amish life. Instead of driving cars, they steer horse-drawn buggies.
In 2011, the Amish made news for an entirely different reason: 16 members of the Bergholz community in eastern Ohio were arrested for hate crime attacks against fellow Amish who disobeyed or criticized Sam Mullet Sr., leader of the community.
The convictions were the first under the religious category in the hate crime laws that were enacted in 2009. Other convictions under the statute have included sexual orientation or race as motivation to commit crimes.
Fox News reports that on Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit overturned the 2012 convictions, ruling that personal conflict between members of the community was the driving force behind the attacks, not religion.
Mullet had served close to 3 years of his 15-year sentence. Sentences for the other convictions ranged from 1 year to 7 years.
Issues with how the trial was conducted were a primary concern for the appellate panel. The judges concluded that the jury was incorrectly instructed on how to weigh the role of religion when analyzing the attacks. Further, the judges added that prosecutors should have had to prove that, but for religious motives, the attacks would not have happened. “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 opinion read. Because “faith permeates most, if not all, aspects of life in the Amish community” does not automatically mean “faith permeates the motives for the assaults in this case.”
Defense attorneys also argued that the hate crime statute was created in anticipation of egregious offenses that were motivated by religion, sexual orientation, and race—not for what occurred in 2011. Wendi Overmeyer, defense attorney for the Amish, explained, “the impetus behind the hate-crime statute, the Matthew Shepard tragedy and James Byrd—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…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.” Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay, and Byrd was killed for being black.
The appellate judges also stated that religious leaders have acted for a multitude of reasons throughout history, and not all of those actions were religiously motivated: “…whether Samuel Mullet or Henry VII, [leaders] may do things, including committing crimes or even creating a new religion, for irreligious reasons.
Overmyer stated she would be seeking the release of Mullet and seven others convicted while the government considered its options to appeal this week’s ruling. “[Mullet] and the rest of the defendants pose no danger to the community, they don’t pose a flight risk…they’re needed at their homes.”
Steven Dettelbach, U.S. Attorney, stated that prosecutors are “reviewing the opinion and considering our options.” As to the opinion itself, Dettelbach concluded, “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.”
Judge Edmund A. Sargus, who disagreed with the majority opinion, wrote that religion was unquestionably the reason for the attacks in his dissent. Sargus heavily quoted Mullet’s acknowledgement of his religious motivations. Mullet had previously told the Associated Press that the goal of the cutting was to send a message to the Amish community. He added he should be able to punish those who violate church laws.
Judge Dan Aaron Polster, the judge who presided over the sentencing, ruled that the attacks were clearly motivated by religion: “…anyone who says this is just a hair- and beard-cutting case wasn’t paying any attention.” In contemplating the sentence of the defendants, he concluded, “These victims were terrorized and traumatized…(the attacks) were calculated to inflict the maximum emotional trauma and distress on the victims, and that’s what they did.”
Ric Simmons, a law professor at Ohio State University, predicts that federal prosecutors will now face an uphill battle in successfully convicting defendants of hate crimes, now that the court has ruled the motive must be purely religious. “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,” he explained.
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