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Judge May Not Cut Amish Hair-Shearing Culprits A Break

Posted: February 6, 2013

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Prosecutors are calling for lengthy sentences, describing the group's hair shearing of fellow Amish as terrorist acts. The defense is asking for leniency, saying no serious physical harm was done. But legal experts predict it won't be a soft sentencing.

An Amish man and woman walk through a parking lot after leaving the U.S. courthouse in Cleveland in September. Sixteen members of an Amish group in Bergholz, Ohio, led by Samuel Mullet, were found guilty of attacks targeting Amish bishops.

An Amish man and woman walk through a parking lot after leaving the U.S. courthouse in Cleveland in September. Sixteen members of an Amish group in Bergholz, Ohio, led by Samuel Mullet, were found guilty of attacks targeting Amish bishops. Mark Duncan

Amish bishop Samuel Mullet stands in front of his home in Bergholz, Ohio. He was found guilty of masterminding a plan to cut off beards and hair of other Amish.

Amish bishop Samuel Mullet stands in front of his home in Bergholz, Ohio. He was found guilty of masterminding a plan to cut off beards and hair of other Amish. Amy Sancetta

Members of an Amish church group who were convicted of committing hate crimes against other Amish will be sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court in Cleveland.

The 16 parishioners were found guilty last September of shearing the beards and hair of their perceived enemies in an effort to shame their victims.

Bittersweet Nuptials

The sequence of events has shaken Lizzie Miller and other Amish across Eastern Ohio, where the assaults took place.

Like many brides, Miller will never forget her wedding day. Her father conducted the ceremony last Thanksgiving.

"I didn't want anybody else to perform the marriage," Miller says.

But, unlike most brides, she had to travel to the federal prison in Youngstown, Ohio, to speak her vows. That's where her father, Amish bishop Samuel Mullet, is awaiting sentencing on conspiracy charges.

"It was the most bittersweet thing that I've ever experienced," she says.

Miller, Mullet's youngest daughter, is one of nearly 140 church members who live in the isolated farming community of Bergholz, Ohio.

The 67-year-old Amish elder was largely silent during the trial, as witnesses testified to being terrorized by the hair-cutting attacks carried out by the group.

Beards on men and long hair on women carry great religious symbolism among the Amish, and although Mullet was never accused of participating in the assaults, federal prosecutors said he was the mastermind. Miller and her family are now braced for a range of sentencing possibilities.

"We are expecting anywhere from bond to life," she says.

Cuts Too Deep For Leniency?

Ohio is home to the nation's largest Amish population, and the spectacle of this reclusive group on trial in a federal courtroom attracted international attention.

Mullet and his followers claimed the attacks stemmed from an internal dispute that got out of hand. The defense has asked the judge for leniency, arguing that the victims weren't seriously injured.

Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Entin doesn't think the judge will buy that argument.

"It's hard to just say that this was just a conflict within the group and we should just let it pass," he says. "Something really bad happened here, and whatever the appropriate criminal sentence ought to be, it's hard to say we should just look the other way."

Since the assaults involved forcible restraint of the victims, Entin says, federal sentencing guidelines give the judge a great deal of discretion in determining the appropriate punishment.

Despite the unusual nature of this case, Ohio State University legal scholar Douglas A. Berman thinks it probably will set an important precedent.

"No matter how insular your community, no matter how unique the kind of criminal activity is within that community, the federal government has a strong interest — and will go to court to protect that interest — in applying national laws," he says.

'He's Still Dad'

Samuel Mullet and eight of his co-conspirators are being held in Youngstown; the rest, including six women, are out on bail so that they can attend to their families and work in Bergholz.

As her teenage nephew hammers a hook into a barn wall, Miller says the young ones have stepped up to handle the daily chores of the missing men, although everyone knows that even behind bars, her father is still in charge.

"He's still the leader," she says. "He's still dad. He's still the bishop."

And no matter what the judge decides on Friday, Miller says she hasn't lost faith in Mullet.

Copyright 2014 Cleveland Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wcpn.org.

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