A federal appeals court on Wednesday overturned the hate-crimes convictions of the leader of a breakaway Amish sect and his followers who sowed fear in the Amish of eastern Ohio in 2011 for a bizarre series of attacks in which they cut the hair and beards of rivals.
But the sect’s leader, Samuel Mullet Sr., who is serving a 15-year sentence, will not immediately be freed, and nor will eight followers who are still in prison with lesser sentences.
While their hate-crimes convictions were voided, the defendants remain under indictment for those crimes and could be retried. Federal prosecutors have weeks to decide whether to appeal Wednesday’s decision, call for a new trial or drop the case. The convictions of Mr. Mullet and his followers for the lesser crime of obstruction of justice remain in place.
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In voiding the convictions, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled that the judge in the 2012 trial that convicted Mr. Mullet and 15 followers had given the jury an overly expansive definition of a hate crime. (Seven followers have completed their prison terms.)
At the urging of federal prosecutors, who were pressing for an unusual application of the 2009 federal hate-crimes law, the judge told the jury that the religion of the victims must be only one “significant factor” among others in motivating the assaults. But the appeals panel ruled that the judge should have told jurors that, for the attacks to be a hate crime, the religion of the victim must be the predominant motivating factor, and said the evidence did not support that conclusion.
“When all is said and done, considerable evidence supported the defendants’ theory that interpersonal and intrafamily disagreements, not the victims’ religious beliefs, sparked the attacks,” the appeals court ruled.
At the trial, the defendants did not deny that they had carried out the attacks, jumping people who had criticized Mr. Mullet as a cult leader, forcing them down, and shearing off the beards of men and the long hair of women. While Mr. Mullet did not take part in the assaults, the government portrayed him as the mastermind.
Beards and long hair are central to Amish identity, and the attacks were widely seen as an effort to humiliate the victims. Members of Mr. Mullet’s small community in Bergholz, Ohio, later said that they had engaged in beard- and hair-cutting among themselves, as well, to punish hypocrites and force them to re-evaluate their faith. But they also described a series of family conflicts and a bitter custody battle that had led to enmities with other Amish and a fervent desire to strike out at critics.
“We’re very pleased with the ruling,” said Wendi L. Overmyer, a federal public defender from Akron who argued the appeal.
While “it only addresses one of many issues we raised,” she said, the rejection of the jury instructions was an important step. “Now, all the defendants will be given a chance to have the charges considered under the correct standard of law.”
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Defense lawyers had sought a more sweeping repudiation of the government’s decision to invoke the federal hate-crimes statute, with its stringent penalties, in a dispute among feuding members of the same religion. But the circuit judges confined their decision to the jury instructions and what they called a lack of evidence that religion was the primary motivating factor.
One member of the three-judge panel dissented, arguing that the convictions should stand and that Mr. Mullet in particular had acted “because of the victims’ religious beliefs.”
The United States attorney in Cleveland, Steven M. Dettelbach, said in a statement that federal prosecutors were “reviewing the opinion and considering our options.”
If they decide to pursue a new trial, the defendants could apply to be released on bond, said Edward G. Bryan, a federal public defender in Cleveland who represents Mr. Mullet.
“I hope this decision today takes us one step closer to returning Mr. Mullet to his home and community,” Mr. Bryan said, “but we’re not out of the woods.”
Mr. Bryan said he had spoken by phone with Wilma Mullet, one of Mr. Mullet’s daughters, who remains in Bergholz and was not involved in the assaults. “She was happy but cautious,” he said, and promised to spread the word of Wednesday’s court decision among the community.
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