Amish Sect Leader and Followers Guilty of Hate Crimes

The New York Times/September 20, 2012

Samuel Mullet Sr., the domineering leader of a renegade Amish sect, and 15 of his followers were convicted on Thursday in Cleveland of federal conspiracy and hate crimes for a series of bizarre beard- and hair-cutting attacks last fall that spread fear through the Amish of eastern Ohio.

The convictions of Mr. Mullet, along with several relatives and others from his settlement who carried out the assaults, could bring lengthy prison terms. The verdicts were a vindication for federal prosecutors, who made a risky decision to apply a 2009 federal hate-crimes law to the sect's violent efforts to humiliate Amish rivals.

Defense lawyers in the case and an independent legal expert had argued that the government was overreaching by turning a personal vendetta within the Amish community, and related attacks, into a federal hate-crimes case. But the jury accepted the prosecutors' description of the attacks as an effort to suppress the victims' practice of religion, finding Mr. Mullet and the other defendants guilty on nearly all the charges they faced of conspiracy, hate crimes and obstruction of justice.

The victims "simply wanted to be left to practice their own religion in their own way in peace," Steven M. Dettelbach, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, said in a news conference after the verdicts were announced. "The defendants invaded their homes, physically attacked these people and sheared them almost like animals," Mr. Dettelbach said.

Mr. Mullet, 66, the founder of a community near Bergholz, Ohio, and 15 followers, including six women, were tried for their roles in five separate attacks last fall, involving assaults on nine people whom Mr. Mullet had described as enemies. The jury, which had no Amish members, heard three weeks of testimony and deliberated more than four days before reaching a verdict at midday on Thursday.

Although Mr. Mullet did not directly participate, prosecutors labeled him the mastermind of the assaults, in which groups of his followers invaded the homes of victims, threw them down and sheared their beards and hair. Among the traditional Amish, men's long beards and women's uncut hair are central to religious identity.

Prosecutors argued that the attacks were intended to humiliate those who questioned Mr. Mullet's cult-like methods, which included forcing errant followers to sleep in chicken coops and pressing married women - including his own daughter-in-law - to accept his intimate sexual "counseling."

Some of the victims had angered Mr. Mullet by refusing to honor his shunning decrees against his foes, calling them an improper use of his power as a bishop and accepting those he sought to banish into their own churches. Other victims had moved out of his settlement and attacked him as a cult leader.

The peculiar attacks first drew national attention last fall when several men from the Bergholz settlement were arrested on state kidnapping and burglary charges. The assaults, and then the public trial, were a searing experience for the region's Amish, who normally lead placid and intensely private lives, without electricity or cars, and try to settle disputes peacefully without involving law enforcement.

The testimony included an elderly woman's account of her terror as six of her children and their spouses made a surprise late-night visit, with the men holding down her sobbing husband as they hacked off his beard and hair and the women cut her waist-length hair to above the ears as she prayed aloud.

During the testimony, the 16 defendants, in traditional attire, and their lawyers sat around four tables that took up half the courtroom. In the gallery sat dozens of Amish supporters of the victims, including several of Mr. Mullet's elderly siblings, who shook their heads as witnesses described his unorthodox methods. Also in the gallery was Mr. Mullet's wife, who sat impassively as a woman who used to live in Bergholz spoke of how Mr. Mullet pressured her to come to his bed.

The stakes for the defendants were raised when federal prosecutors stepped in to charge Mr. Mullet and 15 others, including several of his children and other relatives, with federal conspiracy and hate-crime charges that carry potential sentences of several decades. Judge Dan Aaron Polster scheduled sentencing for Jan. 24.

The defendants did not deny their roles in the attacks, which were carried out with battery-powered clippers, scissors and razor-sharp shears that are designed to trim horse manes. Rather, the case turned on the motives for the attacks and whether it was appropriate to make them into a major federal case under a 2009 hate-crimes law.

To prove the most serious charges, the jurors had to be convinced that the defendants had caused "bodily injury," which could mean "disfigurement," and that the attacks were based mainly on religious differences. Lawyers for the defense argued that cutting hair was not disfigurement and that the attacks resulted from family and personal differences, including a bitter custody battle involving a daughter of Mr. Mullet's, as well as disputes over the "true" Amish way.

During the trial, Edward G. Bryan, Mr. Mullet's lawyer, said that his client might have known about the attacks but did not order them. According to testimony, Mr. Mullet stayed up late to greet attackers when they returned to the compound after one of the assaults, accepting a bag of shorn hair as well as disposable cameras used to record the victims' humiliation. The prosecutors argued that his followers would not have acted without Mr. Mullet's approval, citing what one of his sisters called the zombielike obedience of Bergholz residents.

Mr. Bryan said Thursday that Mr. Mullet planned to appeal, in part on the grounds that the federal law had been misapplied.

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