An appeals court on Wednesday overturned the hate-crime convictions of 16 Amish in beard- and hair-cutting attacks on fellow members of their faith in Ohio.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sided with arguments brought by lawyers for the Amish, who were convicted two years ago in five attacks in Ohio Amish communities in 2011. The attacks were in apparent retaliation against Amish who had defied or denounced the authoritarian style of leader Sam Mullet Sr.
The court said the jury received incorrect instructions about how to weigh the role of religion in the attacks.
"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 ruling said.
Three defendants convicted of non-hate crime related charges, such as concealing evidence, did not challenge those convictions.
Prosecutors have called the attacks hate crimes because religious differences brought about the attacks.
Mullet, 69, wasn't present for the attacks, but "he directed, assisted, encouraged and oversaw the assaults committed by the other defendants," the government said in a February court filing. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison last year, while family members convicted of carrying out his orders got sentences ranging from one to seven years.
Amish, who live in rural communities organized around bishops, dress and live simply and shun many aspects of the modern age such as electricity, refrigeration and computers. They don't drive and often get around in horse-drawn buggies or by paying drivers to taxi them places.
They believe the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards once they marry. Cutting it is considered shameful and doing so forcibly is considered offensive.
The defence had said there was insufficient evidence linking Mullet to the hair-cutting.
"Stretching conspiracy law beyond its limits, the government argued that, as Bishop of the Bergholz community, Mullet could have stopped the hair cuttings but failed to do so, rendering him liable for others' actions," Mullet's attorney said in a November court filing.
Some of the defendants who received the shortest sentences have served that time and already returned to their community.
The defendants had challenged the constitutionality of the federal hate crimes act as overly broad, but the judge handling the case rejected the claim before their trial.
Mullet's attorneys also criticized a judge's decision to allow testimony at trial that Mullet directed a woman to have sex with him for religious reasons. They say the 2008 sexual conduct was unrelated to the 2011 hair-cutting attacks and had a highly prejudicial effect on jurors.
Prosecutors argue that the judge properly allowed the testimony, saying it showed jurors the high level of the control that Mullet exerted over members of his Amish settlement.