(CN) - Overturning hate-crime convictions against a group of Amish who cut the beards and hair of those they deemed hypocrites, the 6th Circuit said religion may not have been the prime motivation behind the attacks.
Samuel Mullet Sr., the bishop of the Bergholz Amish community in Ohio, and his followers, under hate-crime laws, federal prosecutors had emphasized that the Amish religion holds sacred a man's beard and hair.
Each of the 16 defendants whom a jury convicted
in 2012 could face a life sentence for their crimes.
The dispute that led up to the hair-shearing stemmed from Mullet's 2006 excommunication of several church members who questioned his authority.
The parents of his two sons-in-law were among those excommunicated, greatly exacerbating tensions within the families.
One of the sons divorced Mullet's daughter, and eventually won a hotly disputed battle over child custody when he left to join an Amish community in Pennsylvania.
Members of the Bergholz community cut their hair and trimmed their own bears as an act of penance, believing that the loss of the children resulted from their lack of faith, but they did not limit this form of penance to themselves.
From Sept. 6 to Nov. 9, 2011, Mullet and other Berholz members hired drivers to transport them to the homes of perceived "Amish hypocrites," many of whom were family and former friends. Once there, they used scissors or battery-powered clippers to forcibly shave the beards of men and the hair of women.
"During each assault, the defendants restrained and held down the victims," according to the December 2012 indictment. "During some of the assaults, the defendants injured individuals who attempted to intervene to protect or rescue the victims."
In reversing the hate-crime convictions Wednesday, a divided three-judge panel with the 6th Circuit cited this year's Supreme Court decision Burrage v. United States
, which requires instruction of jurors on "but-for" causation.
Under this standard, defendants are only guilty of a hate crime if they would not have acted but for the victim's actual or perceived religious beliefs.
"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," Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote for the Cincinnati-based majority.
"The dissent points to evidence that supports a religious-motive theory of the assaults," Sutton added. "No doubt, such evidence exists. ... [But] that a criminal act in the abstract may have more than one but-for cause does not take away from the defendants the right to have a jury find whether one motive, two motives, or several motives were beyond a reasonable doubt but-for causes of the beard-and-hair-cutting attacks and whether the victims' religious beliefs were one such but-for cause - a cause that 'broke the camel's back.'"
U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus, sitting by designation from Ohio's Southern Distric, dissented.
"The overwhelming and unrefuted evidence adduced at trial demonstrates that Mullet participated in the assaults because of the victims' religious beliefs," he wrote. "The record contains no 'evidence that could rationally lead to a contrary finding.'"
The case will return to the trial court in Cleveland.