LITTLE ROCK — A federal appeals panel Tuesday reduced a $66 million punitive damage award to $24 million for two men who successfully sued evangelist Tony Alamo for ordering them beaten and forcing them to fast while they were part of his ministry.
The three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld an additional $3 million in compensatory damages awarded by a federal jury to each man in 2011.
The decision to reduce the punitive damage award was made "despite the exceptionally reprehensible nature of Alamo’s conduct," Judge William Benton of Kansas City, Mo., wrote in the unanimous decision.
A jury last year found Alamo liable for battery, outrage and conspiracy and awarded the two men $33 million each for the abuse they suffered as children while members of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries.
Alamo, who was convicted in 2009 of 10 counts of taking underage girls across state lines for sex, is serving a 175-year prison sentence.
In appealing the $66 million jury award, Alamo argued that he was not liable under the First Amendment, which allows him to exercise his religion freely.
The appeals court rejected the argument, saying that "if a religious practice physically injures others, the state has the power to prevent or punish the acts."
In the 17-page decision, the court said it ordered the reduction in the punitive damage award because it exceeded the single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages practiced by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Punitive damages of $12 million for each plaintiff are sufficient to achieve proper punishment and to deter similar reprehensible violence against children in the future," the panel said.