The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has recently overturned multiple convictions in a case involving forcible beard- and hair-cutting in the Amish community. Amish bishop Samuel Mullet and a group of 15 followers were convicted of hate crimes related to these actions by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in 2012.
Mullet is the leader of an Amish community in Bergholz, a community in northern Ohio, which, the Plain Dealer reported, some refer to as a cult. His actions as leader have caused strife among neighboring Amish communities, as evidenced by witnesses in the 2012 court case, who alleged that he engaged in bizarre practices and implemented strict and strange discipline on his followers. According to the Plain Dealer, witnesses asserted that Mullet "read and censored all incoming and outgoing mail, punished wrongdoers with spankings and confinement in chicken coops, and engaged in sexual relations with several of the young married women under the guise of marital counseling and absolution."
Mullet is alleged to have orchestrated a series of forcible beard- and hair-cuttings as punishment for those who may have opposed him or been considered his enemies. Long beards for men and long hair for women are considered sacred among the Amish, who generally do not cut them once they are married; a practice they believe is prescribed by the Bible. A jury for the U.S. District Court of Northern Ohio found that the actions by Mullet and his followers amounted to a hate crime under federal law, significantly motivated by the victims' religious faith. Mullet was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
On appeal, the 6th Circuit overturned the convictions, finding that Judge Polster used inappropriate jury instructions, thus adopting an incorrect standard for conviction under the hate crime laws. Polster's jury instructions included language that the victim's faith must be a "significant factor" motivating the crimes against them. In an opinion written by Justice Sutton, the 6th Circuit concluded that the district court should have used the standard proposed by defendants, that "the faith of the victims must be a “but for” cause of the assaults." According to the court this means that "the prosecution had to show that the defendants... assaulted the victims “because of” their religious beliefs." The court also concluded that this was not harmless error, as there could be question as to whether the attacks were motivated by religion or a confluence of factors based on the facts of the case.
Although the convictions have been overturned, the cases are likely far from over, as the 6th Circuit ruled that the double-jeopardy clause did not prevent prosecutors from pursuing new trials.