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The "because of" element of a prosecution under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 requires the government to establish but-for causation.
Sixteen members of the Bergholz Amish community (collectively, “Defendants”) were charged with hate crimes under Section 2 of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 for committing five separate attacks on nine different individuals, slicing off the men’s beards and cutting the women’s hair. Religious and personal ties connected the nine victims of the attacks to the Bergholz community. The prosecution argued that faith – a desire to punish those whom defendants saw as “Amish hypocrites” and who did not properly practice their Amish faith – motivated the assaults. On the other hand, the Defendants argued that a mix of interpersonal issues – parental mistreatment, personality conflicts, harassment, power struggles, and interference with family relationships – motivated the assaults. In instructing the jury, the district court rejected the Defendants’ proposed instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “but for” cause of the assaults), and adopted the Government’s proposed instruction (that the faith of the victims must be a “significant factor” in motivating the assaults even if he or she had other reasons for doing what he or she did as well). The jury convicted all sixteen Defendants of at least one violation of the hate-crime statute. The Defendants challenged their conviction, arguing, among others, that the district court improperly instructed the jury on the motive element of the crime.
Did the district court err in instructing the jury on the motive element of the crime?
The Court held that the district court erred in failing to give a but-for instruction on causation. The Court noted that in everyday usage, the phrase “because of” indicated a but-for causal link between the action that came before it and the circumstance that came afterwards; thus, the "because of" element of a prosecution under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, 18 U.S.C.S. § 249(a)(2)(A), required the government to establish but-for causation. Under the federal hate-crime statute, a Defendant would cause bodily injury to a person because of that person’s actual or perceived religion when the person’s actual or perceived religion was the reason the Defendant decided to act. In this case, since motive played a starring role at trial, and Defendants presented evidence of other, non-religious motives for the assaults, the district court’s error was not harmless. Accordingly, the Court reversed the Defendants’ convictions and remanded the case.