Hate crime trial under way in Amish beard-cutting attacks
Amish community members leave the Cleveland, Ohio federal courthouse on Monday after a jury was selected for the trial of Samuel Mullet Sr. and 15 co-defendants who are charged with committing hate crimes, conspiracy, kidnapping, and destroying evidence for a series of beard and hair cutting attacks.
By Kari Huus, NBC News
A hate-crimes trial got under way in a U.S. District Court in Cleveland, Ohio, Tuesday morning for an Amish leader and 15 followers accused of forcibly cutting the hair and beards of religious rivals.
Samuel Mullet Sr., a 66-year-old bishop for a group of Amish in Bergholz, Ohio, and a group of co-defendants including four of his sons, face charges of conspiracy, hate crimes, kidnapping and obstruction for attacks on nine victims.
Prosecutors laid out their case to the jury, arguing that the group led by Mullet spent months planning the hair- and beard-cutting attacks, considered deeply offensive in Amish culture, The Associated Press reported.
Amish community members appeared in court in their traditional attire — including suspenders and long beards for men, and long dresses and head scarves for the women, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.
The Amish are known for simple living and shunning the use of technology.
The elder Mullet sat stiffly in his seat as the trial got under way, wearing a blue shirt and suspenders, with a beard hanging down to the middle of his chest, according to the AP. The defendants have denied the charges and rejected plea bargain offers. They could face lengthy prison terms if convicted, it said.
"Every one of these attacks targeted those symbols of Amish righteousness," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan, according to the AP.
She said that although the elder Mullet did not take part in the attacks, he was the mastermind.
"Sam Mullet was at the beginning and the end of all these attacks," she said, according to AP.
Defense attorneys portrayed the attacks as family disputes or disagreements over religion that fall short of hate crimes.
Dean Carro, the attorney for Lester Miller, said his client was moved by concern for his parents' salvation when he, two of his brothers and others went to their parents' house and cut off their father's beard, according to the Plain Dealer. The sons' wives then cut off two feet of their mother-in-law's hair, the report said.
"He thought his parents had forgotten the rules," Carro said of Miller, acccording to Reuters. "He was trying to bring them back to the fold."
Carro also told jurors that his client once voluntarily cut off his own beard and slept in a chicken coop in order to correct his own errant ways.
Judge Aaron Polster started the day's proceedings by giving instructions to the jury, which was selected on Monday — explaining the definition of conspiracy and other charges and the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence, according to a report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He also asked jurors to put aside perceptions of the legal system gleaned from television shows such as "Matlock" and "Law and Order."
According to an FBI affidavit, the attacks were acts of revenge in a dispute between the elder Mullet and other Amish bishops who disagreed with his decision to excommunicate eight families after they left his group in 2005.
Read the affidavit
A gathering of 300 mainstream Amish overturned Mullet’s decision, apparently prompting Mullet and his followers to launch the attacks, the affidavit said.
In the forcible cutting of the victims’ hair and beards with 8-inch horse mane-cutting shears, some of the victims were wounded and bloodied, it said.
The case has drawn national attention because the unusual and violent attacks are at odds with Amish pacifism, and because the Amish community is generally self-contained, handling disputes internally.