A series of hate-crime convictions involving more than a dozen Amish individuals has been overturned by an Ohio court of appeals. Legal action began after reported attacks by a reputed radical group of Amish separatists.
The accused individuals entered the homes of an unreported number of victims and cut their hair and beards as a statement of disdain toward the victims’ rejection of the group’s beliefs and behaviors. Though the 16 men and women were charged and found guilty, the sixth United States Appeals Court in Ohio overturned the ruling based on a discrepancy in the jury instructions.
The breakaway radical group, led by Samuel Mullet, was convicted for religiously motivated attacks, so dubbed by authorities on the scene, in 2012. The conviction was for conspiracy to commit a hate crime on the basis of religion.
In five reported attacks in the fall of 2011, Mullet and his militia, as punishment for leaving the breakaway group, shaved their victims’ beards and hair. According to court documents, the verdict of guilt was imposed by a jury that was not equipped to deliberate on a matter based on religion.
Basis for appeal of the convictions
At issue before the appeals court was not whether the crimes had been committed or the charged individuals involved; rather, the appeal primarily involved the umbrella issue of religion and whether the attacks could be verified as hate crimes committed by individuals according to their religion.
Practitioners of the Amish faith revere beards as a significant tribute to manhood and representation of good faith. The way women wear their hair, keeping it long and natural, is also regarded as a signal of honoring their God and religious piety.
Mullet and his group separated from the primary Amish community but still claimed allegiance to the Amish faith and kept beards and long hair themselves. Experts say the hair cutting and shaving was seen as a way to lash out at the individuals with intent to offend.
The majority of judges in the case believed sufficient interpersonal and familial discord was involved to disqualify religion as the sole motive… if it was a motive at all.
Mullet and his followers received varying sentences that ranged from one year and one day in prison for the six followers with the least involvement, to 15 years in prison for Mullet as the leader. Certain followers were convicted of additional charges due to the nature of their individual behaviors, and Mullet received further sanctions due to his concealment of evidence of the attacks, including photos.
The additional charges will stand separate from the appeal. No defendants have been released from custody at this time.
A controversial appeals ruling
The appeals judges’ ruling to overturn the original verdicts has met with criticism. Proponents of religious freedom and safety, as well as major advocates of justice such as U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, argue the original ruling was made fairly and with regard to protection of basic American rights.
Prominent Fort Worth, Texas, defense attorney Jeff Hampton agreed. He said, “As a former state’s attorney and prosecutor, I am familiar with the sensitivity of religious-based crimes. In any case, the constitution and letter of the law must come first. Rights must be upheld.”