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Hate crime convictions overturned in Amish hair-cutting attacks

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(CNN) — An Ohio appeals court Wednesday overturned hate-crime convictions of 16 Amish men and women in connection with a spate of beard- and hair-cutting attacks on members of their faith, according to court documents.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati found that the jury in the original case was given incorrect instructions on how to deliberate the role of religion in the attacks, the documents say.

The leader of a breakaway Amish community, Samuel Mullet Sr., and 15 of his followers were found guilty in 2012 in connection with what authorities said were the religiously motivated attacks on several Amish people. Mullet and others were convicted of conspiracy to violate a federal hate-crime law.

Prosecutors said Mullet’s followers, at his instruction, shaved the beards and cut the hair of Amish people who had left his group over various religious disagreements.

Five attacks happened in four eastern Ohio counties between September and November 2011.

“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,” according to decision.

Two of the three judges on the appeals panel found that “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,” according to the documents.

Mullet was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the crimes. Four of his followers were sentenced to seven years, three received five-year sentences, two were sentenced to two years and six were sentenced to a year and a day, according to the Justice department.

The jury also had convicted various defendants with separate assaults, and Mullet with concealing or attempting to conceal evidence, including a camera and pictures of the attacks, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Those charges, which were not part of the appeal, still stand.

It is unclear if any defendants will be released as a result of the overturned hate crime convictions.

U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach released a statement following the decision.

“We respectfully disagree with the two judges who reversed the defendants’ hate crime convictions based on a jury instruction,” the statement said. “We remain in awe of the courage of the victims in this case, who were subject to violent attacks by the defendants. We are reviewing the opinion and considering our options.”

Usually, the Amish resolve disputes without involving law enforcement, but some Amish members reported the beard-cutting incidents to police.

Mullet’s group, which had broken away from a larger Amish community, is made up primarily of his relatives living on and around an 800-acre compound in a remote valley outside Bergholz, Ohio.

To the Amish, a beard is a significant symbol of faith and manhood, and the way Amish women wear their hair also is a symbol of faith.

Calls to defense attorney Wendi Overmyer by CNN were not immediately returned.

CNN’s Tricia Escobedo, Jason Hanna and Mallory Simon contributed to this report.

By Rande Iaboni