CLEVELAND — A group of Amish men and women accused of hate crimes in hair-cutting attacks took action out of concern that members of their religion were straying from their beliefs, defense attorneys said Tuesday.
Attorneys for the defendants didn't deny that the hair cuttings took place. Instead, they argued that the Amish are bound by different rules guided by their religion and that the government shouldn't get involved in what amounted to a family or church dispute.
At the center of the trial, which opened this week in federal court, are the rules of a religion that distances itself from the outside world and yields to a collective order as opposed to the laws of society. "These are religious separatists," said Ed Bryan, the attorney for the group's accused ringleader.
Prosecutors say the attacks were motivated solely by religious disagreements between Amish bishops and a breakaway group in eastern Ohio that attacked mainstream members five times last fall by cutting off their beards and hair, which carry spiritual significance in the faith.
"Every one of these attacks targeted those symbols of Amish righteousness," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget M. Brennan.
The group spent months planning the attacks, she said.
She described how sons pulled their father out of bed and chopped off his beard in the moonlight, and how women surrounded their mother-in-law and cut off two feet of her hair, taking it down to the scalp in some places.
In the final attack, a man and his wife lured his parents to their farm, Brennan said. Once there, the older man's grandsons held him down while his son cut his hair, she said.
Some of the victims and others from the community will testify against their relatives.
The 16 people on trial live in a settlement near the West Virginia panhandle. All but one is related to the accused ringleader, Sam Mullet Sr., who sat rigidly in court with a beard hanging down to the middle of his chest. He wore a plain shirt with suspenders as did all the Amish men. The women wore white bonnets.
The defendants have rejected plea bargain offers and could face lengthy prison terms if convicted.
Prosecutors say those who were targeted in the attacks were people who left the settlement over disagreements with Mullet's authoritarian methods. Others were bishops who had intervened in Mullet's decision to excommunicate several members. The bishops agreed the excommunications weren't consistent with Amish teachings and decided not to recognize the penalties, which angered Mullet and inspired the attacks, prosecutors said.
Mullet's attorney said he never ordered the hair cuttings and can't believe that what happened amounts to a hate crime.
"What he's saying is these are personal, family disputes" Bryan said.
Some of the defense attorneys said their clients were motivated by anger at their parents over how they were raised and the lingering bitterness. Another attorney said one of the defendants, Lester Miller, took part in the hair cuttings of his parents because he felt they had strayed from their religion.
"He thought his parents had forgotten their roots," attorney Dean Carro said. "His intention was to take a symbolic step."
Brennan said some suspects kept the hair they cut, and one defendant took along a disposable camera to take pictures. Prosecutors presented one photo to jurors, saying it showed one of the suspects grabbing Raymond Hershberger, an Amish bishop who had voiced concern about Mullet, on the night five people broke into his house and cut his beard with shears.
That same night, the group cut the hair of another bishop after grabbing him by his beard and dragging him out of his home, Brennan said.
The group hired a driver to take them to the homes, she said. All of the suspects are members of the "Old Order Amish," meaning they don't own electrical appliances and automobiles or believe in divorce.
Investigators later discovered one of the suspects had hidden the camera that contained photos from that evening, Brennan said. It was under a tree on Mullet's farm.
"They wanted to see the trophies they collected," she said.
Defense attorneys said none of the hair cuttings was meant to hurt anybody even though prosecutors said some of the Amish targeted suffered cuts, bruises and other injuries.
"The aim is not to hurt the person," attorney Gary Levine said. "The aim is to bring them back to the community."
Brennan said that several defendants admitted their roles and that Mullet didn't participate in the attacks but helped plan them.
"Sam Mullet was at the beginning and the end of all of these attacks," she said.
Mullet has said he didn't order the hair-cutting but didn't stop anyone from carrying it out.