Sixth Circuit Overturns 16 Hate Crime Convictions In Amish Case

Mullet-Samuel_storyThere is an interesting case out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit this week on the limits of hate speech prosecutions. The court overturned the hate-crime convictions of 16 men and women in a bizarre series of attacks where Amish victims had their beards cut off. It was personal hatred not religious hatred that prompted this Amish on Amish crime in the view of the court. I had previously criticized the prosecution of the defendants under the hate crime law. Amish bishop Samuel Mullet Sr. (left) was convicted in September of organizing a series of raids in 2011 against religious enemies and disobedient family members. This was an intra-Amish dispute in which the men’s beards were forcibly sheared and women’s hair was cut. He was given 15 years in prison for federal hate crimes in an extreme interoperation of the law by the Obama Administration, which claimed jurisdiction in what appeared a state offense. They did so by building the case around the “Wahl battery-operated hair clippers” used to cut the beards of Amish men and insisted that federal jurisdiction followed the clippers which crossed state borders in their manufacturing and sale. The case is United States v. Miller, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 16532, 2014 FED App. 0210P (6th Cir.).

The court offered the following summary of the facts:

In 1995, Samuel Mullet bought land in Jefferson County, Ohio. That land became the Bergholz Amish community in 2001, when a sufficient number of ordained ministers qualified it as a separate Amish church district. The new community appointed Samuel as its bishop. As bishop, Samuel controlled all aspects of life in the Bergholz compound and had the ability to order the “shunning”—excommunication—of community members who failed to follow the tenets of their Amish faith. R. 540 at 292.

In 2006, Samuel excommunicated several church members who questioned Bergholz community practices and his leadership. Included in the group were Lavern and Mattie Troyer, whose son Aden was married to Samuel’s daughter Wilma, as well as Melvin and Anna Shrock, whose son Emanuel was married to Samuel’s daughter Linda. The excommunications were not good for relationships between and within the affected families. In one case, they led to a divorce. Aden left Wilma to join his parents in a Pennsylvania Amish community after unsuccessfully trying to convince her to join him. In another case, they led to parent-child animosity. Emanuel refused to leave Bergholz with his parents despite their repeated efforts to persuade him to do so.

The Bergholz excommunications also tested church doctrine. Amish communities as a general rule practice strict shunning, meaning that if one Old Order Amish community excommunicates a community member, all other Old Order communities must excommunicate him until he obtains forgiveness from the community that first shunned him. The Bergholz excommunications proved to be an exception. After fleeing Bergholz for another community in Pennsylvania, the Troyers asked not to be subject to the strict-shunning rule. Citing unusual practices in Bergholz, the Troyers asked their new bishop to admit them to the Pennsylvania church without requiring them to seek forgiveness from Samuel—the Elmer Gantry of the Amish community to their mind. Given the number of former Bergholz residents in similar situations, Amish bishops from all over the country met in September 2006 to address the issue. Three hundred bishops convened, and they voted unanimously to reverse the Bergholz excommunications.

At the same time that the ruling allowed the Troyers to settle into their new Pennsylvania community, it also exacerbated a custody battle between Wilma and Aden over their two children. The dispute began when a SWAT team took the children under an emergency temporary custody order issued to Aden. It ended two years, and one trial, later when Aden’s temporary custody of the children became permanent in an order declaring that “[a]ll parenting time shall be in Pennsylvania. Under no circumstances shall parenting time take place in Bergholz, Ohio.” Id. at 152.

Losing Wilma’s children brought the Bergholz community to its knees and sparked a change in their faith-based traditions. Typically, Amish men do not trim their beards and Amish women do not cut their hair as a way of symbolizing their piety, demonstrating righteousness and conveying an Amish identity. Believing that the loss of Wilma’s children resulted from their lack of faith, several Bergholz residents cut their own hair and trimmed their own beards as a way to atone for their sins. The Bergholz community saw these acts as penance and as a symbol of rededication to their faith.

The Bergholz community did not confine this ritual to their own ranks. They also used it to punish or harm others who were not members of the church district. From September 6 to November 9, 2011, several Bergholz community members committed five separate attacks on nine different individuals, slicing off the men’s beards and cutting the women’s hair. Religious and personal ties connected the nine victims of these attacks to the Bergholz community. Some were parents of Bergholz residents, some were friends, and some were associated with family members who had left Bergholz for other Amish districts. Also linking the victims was that they participated in overturning the Bergholz excommunications and that, in the eyes of the assailants, they were “Amish hypocrites.” R. 539 at 35; R. 540 at 11-12.

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach and the Obama Justice Department adopted a sweeping interpretation of federal jurisdiction and the hate speech law to grab the case. The 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act requires “an instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce.” So, Dettelbach argued that the clippers used in the assaults “were purchased at Walmart and had travelled in and affected interstate commerce in that they were manufactured in Dover, Delaware.” The district court accepted the argument which would render any limits on federal power meaningless for the purposes of federalizing what are state crimes. They also argued that, since these acts were based on religion, they could be classified as hate crimes. In addition to Mullett, fifteen other Amish members were sentenced to prison terms of two to seven years.

However, since the federal hate-crime statute prohibits “willfully caus[ing] bodily injury to any person . . . because of the actual or perceived . . . religion . . . of [that] person,” 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(A), there is the question of intent behind the attack. In addressing one of the attacks, the court rejected the theory of the government and even compared Mullet to Henry VIII:

Did some of this strife stem from religious discord? No doubt. But untangling the role of religion, family, personality and other issues in the assaults was the point of the trial. Just because the Millers and their children disagreed about the tenets of their religion and how to practice it does not make the Millers’ religious beliefs a but-for cause of their children’s attack on them. A failure of a child to meet the expectations of a parent (or the reverse)—whether those expectations stem from faith, tradition, vanity, familial hierarchy or something else—is hardly an unusual source of discord between parents and children. . . .

Keep in mind, moreover, what happened in this case. Despite the presence of beard cutting in all five indicted assaults under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the jury convicted the defendants of only four hate-crime violations. We will never know why the jury did what it did. But the mixed verdict casts some doubt on the idea that a faith-inspired manner of assault necessarily equals a faith-inspired motive for assault.

Nor is it fair to say that, because faith permeates most, if not all, aspects of life in the Amish community, it necessarily permeates the motives for the assaults in this case, no matter how mundane the personal, power, or getting-one’s-way disputes that formed the backdrop to these assaults. Even people of the most theocratic faith may do things—including committing crimes—for non-faith-based reasons. And even ostensible faith leaders, whether Samuel Mullet or Henry VIII, may do things, including committing crimes or even creating a new religion, for irreligious reasons.

The court makes a valuable point that, in a deeply religious community, many disputes will necessarily have religious overtones or contributing factors.

District judge Sargus (sitting by designation on the appellate panel) dissented and objected to the panel adopting SARGUS, District Judge, dissenting.

This is the first appellate case involving a religious hate crime under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, 18 U.S.C. § 249. While I respect the majority’s efforts to construe a deceivingly simple, but actually complex, statute, I dissent. In my view, the majority has adopting “an unduly restrictive interpretation of the statute.” Of course, the interpretation of the Obama Administration of both jurisdiction and the statute itself would allow virtually any attack within a religious community to be classified as a hate crime. The concern among civil libertarians has long been that the hate crime statute would be used to simply secure high sentences for acts that were long prosecuted under simple assault and battery claims. We have also discussed how the expansion of these laws in the United States and abroad have created a threat to free speech.

The curtailment of the statute, even in this limited circumstance, therefore, is likely to be welcomed by many in the civil liberties community. However, the Obama Administration is considering an appeal.

Here is the opinion: United States v. Miller

38 thoughts on “Sixth Circuit Overturns 16 Hate Crime Convictions In Amish Case”

  1. The 6th Circuit got it right… The hate crime statute requires that the crime be committed because of (inter alia) the religion of the victim; here, the way in which the accused assaulted the victim was chosen based on religion (i.e. they cut off beards because they knew it was a religious insult), but the decision to commit an assault in the first place was motivated by a personal grudge.

  2. “hate crime” from its inception was only intended for blacks and homosexuals, never for religion. The hate crime idiocy places those victims of crimes of a higher status than others simply because of skin color or sexual disorientation.

  3. don,t get me started on terrorism it’s islam fighting a war against all those who are not muslim call it what you will but it does not change that fact

  4. Haz:

    Don’t get me started on the “workplace violence” scandal. Those soldiers injured still have’t received their proper pay because of that little political ploy.

    I just read that the Ft Hood Shooter Hassan wrote to ISIS asking to become a citizen of ISIS, and be a good soldier of Allah, rather than try to get along with the unbelievers.

    And yet the White House still sticks with its “workplace violence” fantasy. We all know terrorism is alive and well, they can stop pretending now . . .

  5. There was a great movie several years back called Blazing Saddles. There is a crucial scene in there where words got changed at the last minute. There is a debate about letting the Freedmen come join the community and they would also help fend off some bandits who were about to attack the town. The mayor or leader finally gives in and allows the Freedmen in. Then he says: But NOT The IRISH! Research shows that the original script had said “Amish”. I thought you all should know this.

    1. BarkinDog – Irish makes more sense in the context of the film than does Amish. It plays better historically. Scripts get changed all the time as they try to refine things. I would not read anything into the script change.

  6. Ray-

    I wish it had been the UN involved instead. A letter of condemnation would be a much more fitting punishment to this crime than the outrageous sentences here.

  7. I think that they are splitting hairs here. The crime should be prosecuted on the turn about is fair play thesis and the defendants should have their heads shaved, legs, armpits etc. They should be photographed and the mug shots posted on big billboards in their community.

  8. good thing the clippers weren’t made in china the would have given the U.N. a”right” to get involved

  9. If its 15 years in jail for forcibly cutting hair, what is left for murder?

  10. And after forcing the various issues on this case and the law through my “wanting the weekend” brain, I finally realize that the man accused of orchestrating these violent attacks causing horrible grooming is named “Mullet”?


  11. I know several Amish families. Shunning is very serious. The victims lose their families forever. Overturning a shunning is very rare. There is a lot of good and bad in these communities. They’re a culture out of time.

    Sounds like things really went awry here, although the elders worked it out.

    I do not believe one Amish attack on another is a hate crime. Doesn’t sound like they were walking the walk of living in peace. There must have been a more appropriate charge for physically attacking someone to cause shame.


    I’ve always felt that the punishment for murder should be the same, regardless of the weapon used or motivation. Dead is dead. How would the family of a knifing victim feel if her killer got less time than another because he didn’t use a gun? Murder is the ultimate crime. Period.

  12. “Murder is murder.”

    No. It isn’t. And the law hasn’t treated homicide that way in a very long time. We have different levels of homicide from justifiable homicide to voluntary manslaughter to second degree murder all the way up to capital murder.

    Hate crimes bring nothing new to differentiating between killings. We’ve done that for a while. But it does bring difficulties into our differentiation – subjective issues that our system is simply not very good at dealing with.

    With other crimes, it is, sometimes but not always, a bit easier to see the differences. Burning a cross outside an African American’s home or spray painting a swastika on a Jew’s garage is clearly, for most people, worse than tagging a fence.

    But we do have other laws that can deal with that difference, such as terrorism statutes, and hate crime laws seem to cause far more problems than they solve.

  13. correction …

    Spinny and the nyets did not get it.

    The verdicts were overturned because of a SCOTUS case that defined the requisites as “but for” rather than “significant factor” in jury instructions in this type of case:

    At stake in this appeal is whether their hate-crime convictions may stand. No one questions that the assaults occurred, and only a few defendants question their participation in them. The central issue at trial was whether the defendants committed the assaults “because of” the religion of the victims. 18 U.S.C. § 249(a)(2)(A). In instructing the jury on this point, the district court rejected the defendants’ proposed instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “but for” cause of the assaults) and adopted the government’s proposed instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “significant factor” in motivating the assaults). Regrettably for all concerned, a case decided after this trial confirms that the court should have given a but-for instruction on causation in the context of this criminal trial. Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881, 887-89 (2014). Because this error was not harmless, and indeed went to the central factual debate at trial, we must reverse these convictions.

    (JT’s Link to the opinion).

    Clueless about PC and the relevant law leads to rubbish analysis once again.

    The result is PI, political ineptness masking as legal analysis.

    And this while they criticize the politicization of the judiciary.


  14. Don de Drain, my comment wasn’t hyperbole. They were convicted of hate crimes, not assault! What was so compelling about this case that the feds just had to intervene? Then they didn’t even get it right. What if this was a gay commune, gay-on-gay assault? Would’ve the prosecutors been equally motivated to prosecute for hate crimes? And what if the prosecutors were right-wing Christians, piling on the gay community? Still hyperbole? We probably agree here more than you think, but, as I have illustrated, the character roles would have to be reversed, first.

    Groty, excellent!

  15. Hate crime laws are repugnant. If A murders B, why does it matter if A was motivated by “hate” rather than some other motivating factor for murder, such as: greed, jealousy, revenge, etc.?

    Murder is murder. Why is a murder driven by “hate” more egregious than a murder motivated by, say, a big life insurance policy? The concept doesn’t make sense. Criminalizing thoughts, rather than conduct, puts us on a very slippery Orwellian slope.

  16. Fiver,
    I completely agree that the commerce clause is not a good justification for charging someone with a Federal crime. It’s too bad Lopez didn’t go further in reigning in the overuse of interstate commerce to justify the Fed’s actions.

    But I also have issues with the decision in Wickard v Filburn and other commerce clause cases. I’d love to see the courts start swinging back to some sense of logic instead of seemingly blind deference to Congress.

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