Prosecutor: Amish defendants in beard-cutting attacks aren't above the law

CLEVELAND - Each one of the hair- and-beard-cutting attacks against Amish men and women last fall was connected to one person, an Amish bishop who thought he was above the law and free to hand out punishment based on his religious beliefs, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday.

And every one of the attacks carried out by members of a breakaway Amish group comes back to religion, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristy Parker said during closing arguments in the government's hate crimes case.

The bishop, Sam Mullet Sr., thought that the government should stay out of the dispute because he wanted to discipline those who went against him, she said. "That is where he's absolutely wrong," Parker said.

Sixteen members of the group planned or took part in the five separate attacks that the government says were motivated by religious disputes among the Amish. They say the defendants cut off Amish men's beards and women's hair because the hair carries spiritual significance in their faith.

Defense attorneys acknowledge that the haircuttings took place and that crimes were committed but contend that prosecutors are overreaching by calling them hate crimes.

"Use common sense," defense attorney Neal Atway told jurors. "What happened was offensive, but what crime was committed?"

All of the defendants are members of Mullet's settlement that he founded in eastern Ohio near the West Virginia panhandle. They could face lengthy prison terms if convicted on charges that include conspiracy and obstructing justice.

Mullet isn't accused of cutting anyone's hair. But prosecutors say he was involved in every other way -- from giving his sons' directions to the home of a bishop whose hair was chopped off to mocking the victims in jail house phone calls.

After every attack, the suspects returned to Mullet's home, once giving him a paper bag stuffed with hair, Parker said.

"None of the terror that was unleashed on the victims last fall would have happened without Sam Mullet," she said.

All of the victims, she said, were people who had a dispute with Mullet over his religious practices and his authoritarian rule over the settlement he founded.

Mullet and his followers "believed they knew best how to practice the Amish faith and held the keys to heaven," Parker said. "If these assaults were merely personal, why did the defendants zero in on the beards and head hair?"

Prosecutors said Mullet was vindictive and had complete control over people in his community, taking part in the sexual "counseling" of married women and encouraging others to sleep in chicken coops as punishment.

Mullet has denied ordering the haircutting but said he didn't stop anyone from carrying it out.

Some of the defense attorneys claimed the haircuttings were motivated by family feuds or that the defendants were trying to help others who were straying from their Amish beliefs.

"These were acts of love," said attorney Dean Carro, who represents Lester Miller, who is accused of cutting his father's hair.

Miller and his siblings didn't intend to hurt their father or mother, Carro said. "The reasons they did these things is because they thought they deviated from the Amish path," he said.

Attorney Brian M. Pierce scoffed at the idea that the haircutting amounted to bodily injury. Some of the victims said the shears used to take their hair bloodied their scalps. One bishop whose beard was cut refused to preach until it grew back.

"Emotional harm is not bodily injury," Pierce said. "The beards grew back."

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