By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A federal appeals court in Ohio on Wednesday overturned the hate crime convictions of an Amish sect leader and 15 of his followers in beard- and hair-cutting attacks on fellow members of their religious faith.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati found that the jury in the 2012 case received incorrect instructions on how to consider the role of religion in the attacks.
Prosecutors had contended the crimes were motivated by religious disputes between Samuel Mullet Sr., a leader of a sect in Bergholz, Ohio, and other Amish religious leaders who had accepted into their communities people Mullet had excommunicated from his.
Defense attorneys had countered that the assaults were the result of family or financial disputes and could not be classified as hate crimes.
The majority of the three-judge appellate panel agreed, finding that "considerable evidence supported the defendants' theory that interpersonal and intra-family agreements, not the victims' religious beliefs, sparked the attacks."
Jurors heard testimony that Mullet's followers had restrained the assault victims and forcibly cut their hair and beards, using scissors, clippers, shears and battery-operated razors. Some of the 16 have already served prison sentences.
Amish women and married Amish men do not cut their hair or beards, which they consider symbols of religious life. The Amish are known for their plain dress, simple living and shunning of technology.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Eric Beech)