Last Wednesday, a U.S. appeals court reversed the hate crimes convictions of Sam Mullet, Sr., and his followers, a decision that Donald Kraybill compared to “splitting legal hairs over Amish beards.”

Donald KraybillA three-member panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, decided that the federal judge in Cleveland had erred in his instructions to the jury at the prominent trial in 2012 by providing an overly expansive definition of hate crimes. The defendants did not deny that they had attacked Amish men and women in 2011, forcibly cutting the men’s beards and the women’s hair. Long hair and beards are extremely important to Amish women and men. The government attorneys had then prosecuted, and convicted, Mr. Mullet and his followers at the trial in 2012 based on the provisions of the hate crimes law.

The appeals court focused narrowly on the definition given in the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. News stories last week indicated that this decision represents the first appellate court case relating to a religious hate crime under the terms of that federal law.

The crux of the recent court decision is the meaning of the phrase “because of” in the law. The defendants argued that, in order for the attacks to have been hate crimes, the law requires that they must have been motivated because of the religion of their victims. The defendants maintained that there were many other family, personal, and social issues involved. In essence, the Amish faith of the victims was only a part of the issue, they argued.

At the 2012 trial, the district court judge instructed the jury to convict if they decided that religion was a “significant motivating factor” in the attacks. Two of the three judges on the appeals court panel were troubled because the phrase “because of,” required by the federal statute, was not used by the district court judge. The phrase “because of” in the statute seemed different to the appellate court judges than the “significant motivating factor” charge to the jury by the 2012 trial judge.

To someone not trained in legal matters, as Kraybill suggests, it may seem like splitting legal hairs. Circuit Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton wrote for the majority, “how should a jury measure whether a specific motive was significant in inspiring a defendant to act? Is a motive significant if it is one of three reasons he acted? One of ten? ‘Uncertainty of [this] kind cannot be squared with the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard.'”

However, one of the three appellate court judges, Edmund A. Sargus, Jr., disagreed with the other two. He argued that the “because of” phrase in the 2009 statute is, by its very nature, complex, and that religion was not necessarily the only issue causing the attack. The courts should apply what the law profession, in cases such as this, refers to as the “but for” test: the assailants would not have attacked the victims “but for” their religion as Amish people.

In essence, was the religion of the victims the primary reason for the attacks, or were other factors also very important. Judge Sargus argued that the interpretation of the appellate court majority requires that the victims would have been attacked even if they had not been Amish. He writes that “no such evidence” exists to maintain such a position. They would not have been attacked if they had not been Amish, he believes.

On Friday last week, Donald Kraybill, noted expert on Amish society, published an essay reviewing the ramifications of the decision. His analysis focuses on the motivations of the attackers. Were they motivated by family troubles, religious differences, or interpersonal conflicts? He makes it clear that the district court judge in 2012 used a broader definition of the motives necessary to produce a hate crime, and the appellate court panel was more restrictive.

The conclusion to his essay suggests that he disagrees with the ruling. He argues that if the government does not challenge the decision, prosecuting hate crimes in the future will become more difficult, since making a case, as the Cincinnati panel decision requires, based on a single, overriding motive is quite difficult.

Mr. Mullet and seven of his followers will remain in prison because of their convictions for lesser crimes, while eight of his convicted followers have already been released from their one-year sentences or are about to be released from two-year convictions. The government may decide to appeal last week’s court ruling, drop the case, or perhaps call for a new trial. It was clear from a news story last month that even the one year imprisonment made a significant impression on at least some of the convicted Amish people.