- Associated Press - Thursday, September 20, 2012

CLEVELAND — Sixteen Amish men and women were convicted Thursday of hate crimes for a series of hair- and beard-cutting attacks on fellow sect members in a religious dispute that offered a rare and sometimes lurid glimpse into the closed and usually self-regulating community of believers.

A federal jury found 66-year-old Samuel Mullet, the leader of a breakaway group, guilty of orchestrating the cuttings last fall in an attempt to shame mainstream members of his community who he believed were straying from their beliefs. His followers were found guilty of carrying out the attacks, which terrorized the normally peaceful religious settlement, which aims to live simply and piously.

Prosecutors and witnesses 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 2 feet of her hair, taking it down to the scalp in some places.

The defendants face prison terms of 10 years or more. Prosecutors said they targeted hair because it carries spiritual significance in their faith.

All the defendants are members of Mr. Mullet’s settlement, which he founded in eastern Ohio near the West Virginia panhandle. The Amish eschew many conveniences of modern life, including electrical appliances and automobiles, and embrace their centuries-old roots.

Federal officials said the verdicts would send a message about religious intolerance.

“The victims in this case are members of a peaceful and traditional religion who simply wanted to be left to practice their religion in peace,” said U.S. Attorney Steven M. Dettelbach. “Unfortunately, the defendants denied them this basic right, and they did so in the most violent way.”

Members of the Amish community who sat through the trial hurried into a hired van without commenting, some covering their faces.

Defense attorneys said the defendants were bewildered by the verdicts and said likely appeals would be based on a challenge to the hate-crimes law.

“They really don’t understand the court system the way the rest of us have, being educated and reading newspapers,” said Joseph Dubyak, whose client, Linda Schrock, has 10 children with her husband, who also was convicted.

Rhonda Kotnik, representing Kathryn Miller, said the verdicts would destroy Mr. Mullet’s community of about 25 families. The defendants, including six couples, have a total of about 50 children, she said.

“The community is going to be ripped apart. I don’t know what’s going to happen to all their children,” she said.

Mr. Mullet wasn’t accused of cutting anyone’s hair. But prosecutors said he planned and encouraged his sons and the others, mocked the victims in jailhouse phone calls and was given a paper bag stuffed with the hair of one victim.

Prosecutors told jurors that Mr. Mullet thought he was above the law and free to discipline those who went against him based on his religious beliefs. Before his arrest last November, he defended what he said is his right to punish people who break church laws.

“You have your laws on the road and the town — if somebody doesn’t obey them, you punish them. But I’m not allowed to punish the church people?” Mr. Mullet said to the Associated Press last October.

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