Thursday, August 28, 2014

6th Circuit Reverses Hate Crime Convictions In Amish Beard-Cutting Case

In an important decision under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision reversed the convictions of 16 members of the Bergholz Amish community for their roles in beard and hair-cutting attacks on other Amish men and women. In United States v. Miller, (6th Cir., Aug. 27, 2014), the majority held that the district court gave an erroneous instruction to the jury on motivation that went to the central issue in the trial.

18 USC Sec. 249 prohibits willfully causing bodily injury "because of" the victim's actual or perceived religion. The entire panel agreed that the U.S. Supreme Court's January 2014 decision in Burrage v. United States, which post-dated the district court's decision, should be read to require "but for" causation here. The district court judge had refused to giv e a "but for" causation instruction, and instead instructed the jury that the victims' religion need only be a "significant factor" in motivating the assaults. Judge Sutton's majority opinion on appeal, after closely examining the testimony at trial, concluded:
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. And all of this evidence could have given a reasonable juror grounds to doubt that religion was a but-for cause of the assaults.
Judge Sargus (sitting by appointment) dissented arguing that there can be more than one "but-for" causes, and that here it was only because of the religious significance of the act that defendants chose to cut off the hair and beards of their victims. He contended that the majority had wrongly required faith-based animus in order to convict.  New York Times, reporting on the decision, points out that defendants are still in prison on other charges.  [Thanks to Tom Rutledge for the lead.]