Opening Statements Begin in Amish Hate Crimes Case

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CLEVELAND -- Opening statements began on Tuesday in the religious hate crimes trial of Amish leader Sam Mullet and his followers. U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster is presiding over the case against Mullet, 66, and 15 other people, many from the same family. 

During her opening remarks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan said Mullet personally oversaw three planned attacks on nine different people, all former members of the Amish community where Mullet served as a bishop.

During the alleged attacks on September 6th, 24th and November 9th in 2011, Brennan accused Mullet of directing his followers to remove the hair and beards off his enemies. The 15 individuals named in the 10-count indictment are accused of cutting the hair and beards after forcibly restraining nine people, who were previously excommunicated--or shunned--by Mullet.  According to the Amish faith, the head hair and beards are considered sacred religious symbols on men and women.

"Sam Mullet was the beginning and the end of all these attacks," said Brennan. According to the U.S. Attorney, Mullet was targeting his victims, including members of his own family, who he previously excommunicated.

In court, Mullet was portrayed as an angry man who ruled his community and often had sexual encounters with the wives of several followers. In 2006, those allegations prompted a meeting in rural Pennsylvania with 300 Amish bishops. Part of the meeting included a discussion on Mullet and his large number of excommunications.

Following that meeting, a group of seven bishops was established to investigate Mullet.  The group later overturned his excommunications, which allowed those he kicked-out to join other Amish communities.  According to federal prosecutors, the nine men and women allegedly attacked were all former members of Mullet's community and he was angry they were permitted back into the church.

"What Sam Mullet did was not right," said an unidentified member of the Holmes County Amish community who was at the courthouse on Monday. "I just want to be a voice for the community and I want the people to know that Sam Mullet is only one person, he's just a small sect and the Amish are not like this."

Mullet was also reportedly enraged when his compound in Bergholz, Ohio, was raided by authorities investigating allegations that children were being abused.

During her opening remarks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brennan said Mullet committed religious violence and lied to the FBI.  The defendants are all accused of conspiring against the victims.

The jury will have to decide if cutting off the hair and beards was religiously motivated and constituted bodily injury by disfigurement and therefore was a hate crime. 

"They're not on trial for their beliefs, they're on trial for their acts," said Brennan.

The 16 defendants are each represented by an attorney. During their opening statements, some argued the Amish live according to 17th century beliefs and this was strictly a family affair and not a criminal act. Some asked for the jury to consider each individual person when making a determination, hoping to separate themselves from Mullet.

If convicted, Mullet and some of the others face life in prison if the finding of guilt includes a kidnapping charge, according to spokesman Mike Tobin.

The trial is expected to last several weeks.

For more on the Sam Mullet hate crimes trial, click here.