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16 Amish convicted of hate crimes in beard cutting attacks

September 20, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Two Amish women walk to the U.S. Federal Courthouse Sept. 20 in Cleveland.
Two Amish women walk to the U.S. Federal Courthouse Sept. 20 in Cleveland. ( Scott R. Galvin / Associated…)

Sixteen members of a schismatic Amish group were convicted Thursday of federal hate crimes in connection with a series of attacks that included cutting the beards and hair of their coreligionists.

A Cleveland jury of seven men and five women deliberated for four days before convicting Samuel Mullet Sr., 66, of orchestrating at least five attacks in 2011 on other Amish, a pacifist religion whose members are noted for their plain dress and their reluctance to embrace modern technology.

Four of Mullet’s children were among those convicted of carrying out the attacks ordered by their father.  All face prison terms of 10 years or  more on charges that also included conspiracy, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 24, prosecutors said.

The defendants were known as the Bergholz Amish, a group of about 20 families who lived on an 880-acre farm in Bergholz, in Ohio's Jefferson County, about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland. Mullet,  the charismatic leader of the group, ordered the cutting of men’s beards and women’s hair as punishments designed to force others into more traditional ways, according to prosecutors.

Defense lawyers called no witnesses during the trial, but argued the cuttings were not hate-related. The cuttings were out of love and designed to save other Amish from their ways.

Beards and long hair are considered symbols of the Amish devotion to God, a key criterion that elevated the cuttings from simple assaults to hate crimes. Thursday’s convictions were the first in Ohio under a 2009 law that expanded the federal government’s ability to prosecute hate crimes, according to officials.

At a televised news conference after the verdict was returned, officials said the case was an important application of anti-hate laws and rejected claims that Mullet and his followers had been singled out for their religious beliefs.

“From day one, this case has been about the rule of law and defending the right of people to worship in peace,” said Steven Dettelbach, U.S. attorney for the northern district of Ohio. “Our nation was founded on the bedrock principle that everyone is free to worship how they see fit. Violent attempts to attack this most basic freedom have no place in our country.”

Officials took a similar tack in a statement released by the Department of Justice in Washington.

 “The violent and offensive actions of these defendants, which were aimed at beliefs and symbols held sacred by this country's Amish citizens, are an affront to religious freedom and tolerance, which are core values protected by our Constitution and our civil rights laws,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. “Those laws prohibit the use of violence to settle religious differences and the Department of Justice and the Civil Rights Division will vigorously enforce those laws.”

Mullet and his group had broken with the more traditional Amish, urging a stricter form of the religion including shunning, a form of exclusion and excommunication. He had control over the farming community he founded about two decades ago to carry out his vision of the religion.

Prosecutors told jurors that Mullet thought he was above the law and free to discipline those who went against him based on his religious beliefs. Before his arrest in November, he defended what he believes is his right to punish people who break church laws.

 “You have your laws on the road and the town; if somebody doesn't obey them, you punish them. But I'm not allowed to punish the church people?” Mullet told the Associated Press last year.

All the victims, prosecutors said, were people who disagreed with Mullet. In one of the attacks, an Amish woman testified that her own sons and a daughter who lived in Mullet's community cut her hair and her husband's beard in a surprise assault.

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