The sixteen hate-crime convictions in hair-cutting attacks by Amish in Ohio have been overturned by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At the heart of the ruling is the role religion played in the earlier trial, with the federal court stating that the defendants acted not on religious motivations but personal ones. Two of the three appeals court judges said that the jury was given incorrect instructions about how to view religion in the case.
As related to five attacks in 2011, the lower court handed down convictions two years ago. The appeals court ruled Wednesday that it was not religion that drove the motive behind the Amish-targeted attacks, but personal conflict.
The five attacks that ended up with convictions for the sixteen defendants in the lower court were said to be retaliation against Amish individuals who had rebelled against the leader of the eastern Ohio Amish community of Bergholz by criticizing or defying him. That man was Sam Mullet Sr., who himself was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He and 15 others were sentenced in federal court in February, after which they appealed to the Sixth District in Cincinnati.
The two judges on the three judge appeals panel who concluded that the instructions to the jury were incorrect said that the prosecutors should have been required to prove that, if it were not for religious motive, the assaults would not have occurred. The judges agreed with the defendants and their attorneys, who argued that it was family feuding and personal issues, not religious beliefs, that motivated their attacks. They were clear that, just because the Amish faith pervades Bergholz, it is not necessarily behind the motives of the perpetrators.
Mullet and others remain in prison pending the success of their attorney, Wendi Overmyer who, despite the court’s reversal, still must win their release. Mullet’s 15 year sentence has already been diminished by almost three years. Seven others from Bergholz are currently living out prison terms between five and seven years. The remaining eight who were convicted have either already served a full year in prison and been released or will soon be released after two-year sentences. In support of her intent to win his release, Overmyer stated that Mullet and the other defendants are needed at their homes and are not flight risks. Steven Dettelbach, a U.S. Attorney involved with prosecuting the case, voiced his disagreement with the two judges while expressing his team’s awe of the victims’ courage in the case, “who were subject to violent attacks by the defendants.”
Amish live relatively simple lifestyles and shun what are now considered basics of survival, such as refrigerators, electricity and motor vehicles. Education usually stops after the eighth grade. The cutting of hair is shameful to Amish people so having to do so forcibly is a big deal. In an interview, Mullet stated the reason for the hair-cutting attacks was to communicate to his Amish community that, as their leader, he is empowered to distribute punishment to congregants who break church laws.
The judge who disagreed with the majority disagreed strongly with its conclusion. Edmund A. Sargus Jr. believes religion was an obvious motive for the attacks so, because of this, the previously-ruled hate-crime convictions were entirely appropriate.
The federal law under which Bergholz’ Amish were convicted was 2009’s Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was used for the first time to prosecute a religious violation. The Act says that anyone found guilty of willful bodily injury caused because of an actual or perceived religion will be imprisoned. Although the word does not appear in the law, the defendants’ attorneys believe the statute was intended to be used only for “egregious” violations and, they argued, their clients actions were not so. One definition of “egregious” is “conspicuously bad.”
In the previous, overturned conviction, Judge Dan Aaron Polster said that he and the jury were convinced that the five attacks were indeed motivated by religion. “Anyone who says this is just a hair and beard-cutting case,” he said, “wasn’t paying any attention.” He pointed out that the Amish victims were traumatized and that the attacks carried out by the 16 people were designed “to inflict the maximum emotional trauma and distress on the victims.”
By Gregory Baskin