I have previously written about the US Attorney in our region Steven Dettelbach being an overzealous prosecutor. One example of this is his use of civil asset forfeiture laws to deprive people of their possessions without having to first convict them of any wrongdoing. Another is his use of terrorism charges against hapless individuals who were lured into plotting to blow up a local bridge. The third was his use of federal hate crime laws against 16 members of an Amish group that cut off the beards of other Amish people in an internal dispute because one sect’s leader thought that the other Amish were not sufficiently observant and pious. By stretching federal hate crime and conspiracy laws to an extreme level, Dettelbach obtained convictions and harsh sentences against the defendants in each case.
When it comes to the last case, Dettelbach has received a setback where the US Appeals Court for the Sixth Circuit has by a 2-1 margin overturned the convictions, saying that for the hate crime statutes to be used they must be the primary cause of the offense.
The appellate ruling said: “The assaults were not everyday occurrences, whether one looks at the setting (several normally peaceful Amish communities), the method of attack (cutting the hair and shaving the beards of the victims), the mode of transportation to them (hired drivers), the relationship between the assailants and their victims (two of them involved children attacking their parents), or the alleged motive (religious-based hatred between members of the same faith).”
The court based its ruling on [US District Judge Dan] Polster’s jury instructions. “The central issue at trial was whether the defendants committed the assaults ‘because of’ the religion of the victims,” the appellate ruling said.
Bryan and defense attorneys argued that the attacks took place because of personal disagreements, not because of religion. The appellate ruling said Polster incorrectly adopted the proposed jury instructions of prosecutors, who maintained that the “faith of the victims must be a ‘significant factor’ in motivating the assaults.”
“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,” the ruling said.
In simple terms, lawyers said Polster appeared to water down the jury instructions as far as what the government needed to prove. They said the most important element in a hate crime is motivation.
For instance, if a college student in a bar punches an Amish man in a disagreement over a woman, that is not a hate crime, the lawyers said. But if the college student attacks an Amish man specifically because of his hatred of the Amish faith, then that is a hate crime.
Sam Mullett, the leader of the Amish cult whose followers that carried out the attacks, is by all accounts an odious and controlling man. But that does not excuse prosecutorial excess.
You can read the Appeals Court opinion here.