GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The leader of the House of Judah religious sect and six subordinates were convicted Friday of enslaving children and causing a boy's death.
"The intent of the defendants was that the children had no choice but to do their work or be subject to brutal beatings," said U.S. District Judge Douglas Hillman, who decided the case after the defendants requested a non-jury trial.
William A. Lewis, his mistress, his son and four members of the cult council could be sentenced to life in prison.
Convicted of Lesser Charge
Lewis and five of the defendants also were convicted of a lesser charge of holding 12-year-old John Yarbough in involuntary servitude from late 1981 until his July 4, 1983, beating death. That charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Lewis and the others, who have moved their sect from rural southwest Michigan to Alabama, were allowed to remain free on bond. No sentencing date was set.
"I have no comment," the leader of 100 self-described Black Hebrew Israelite Jews said after the verdict.
Convicted on both counts were Lewis, 66; his son, William L. Lewis, 41; sect "prophetess" Muriel S. King, 40, and sect council members Robert A. McGee, 31; Theodore R. Jones, 41; Larry E. Branson, 32, and Eddie L. Green, 34.
All but King were convicted of involuntary servitude.
Ritualized Beatings Told
Hillman, in his hourlong verbal opinion, recited a litany of testimony about life on the commune, where he said ritualized beatings on the buttocks with large sticks were ordered by Lewis as a means of controlling children.
The beatings, the strict enforcement of rules and the forced labor of children resulted in slavery as prohibited by the 13th Amendment, he ruled.
Defense lawyers, claiming the slavery allegations were unfounded, based their case on the sect members' right to practice their religious beliefs and set rules that their children must follow.