CINCINNATI -- Personal conflict, not religion, was the driving motive behind beard- and hair-cutting attacks targeting Amish -- including of a couple in Middlefield -- an appeals court panel ruled today in overturning the hate-crime convictions of 16 men and women.
A 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel sided with arguments brought by attorneys for the Amish defendants, who were 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 Sr., 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 are 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 are about to be released from two-year sentences.
Defense attorney Wendi Overmyer, who represents the Amish, said she likely would be seeking the release of Mullet and the seven other men as the government considers its appeal options.
"Sam and the rest of the defendants pose no danger to the community, they don't pose a flight risk," she said. "They're needed at their homes."
U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said prosecutors are "reviewing the opinion and considering our options."
"We respectfully disagree with the two judges who reversed the defendants' hate crime convictions based on a jury instruction," he said. "We remain in awe of the courage of the victims in this case, who were subject to violent attacks by the defendants."