Prosecutors in the Amish hair-cutting trial were proscribed from using words like "cult" to describe the Bergholz clan, in a pretrial decision by Judge Polster. But nothing prohibits witnesses from such characterizations and one of the brutally butchered bishops, Myron Miller, did so.
Pressed by the prosecutor to specify his concerns, Miller mentioned without details "cultic" activities and reported "brain-washing" of community members required to submit to Mullet's authority.
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Ed Bryan, defense attorney for Mullet, asked Miller whether the dispute involved personal issues instead of religious differences as the government has argued in calling the attacks religion-based hate crimes.
"I have nothing against Sam Mullet," Miller responded. "What's going on in that community, or was going on, we were very concerned about interaction with any of our members."
Miller's excommunication of one of Mullet's sons was one of the key triggers to the series of attacks and he was the second victim to be targeted.
Days later, on the night of Oct. 4, Miller said, Amish men from nearby Bergholz rousted him from bed, grabbed him by the beard and pulled him outside. "I saw the flash of scissors, I knew what they were going to do, and I was powerless to stop them," he testified.
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Miller was the second Amish bishop to have his beard chopped off. Witnesses described another attack, earlier that same night, on Raymond Hershberger, a 79-year-old Amish bishop from Holmes County.
Police described the aftermath of the first attack.
The officers recalled that clumps of gray hair lay on a rocking chair and on the floor of the living room, and a crowd of people were crying and yelling in Pennsylvania Dutch, their first language.
Hershberger’s son, Levi, told the officers that “Some guys broke in and gave Grandpa a bad haircut,” a Sheriff’s Department detective said.
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Detective Joe Mullet, who is not related to any of the defendants, and his boss, Sheriff Timothy Zimmerly, described Raymond Hershberger as tearful and disconsolate, his hair and beard chopped off in chunks, and cuts bleeding on his scalp.
Hershberger’s son identified the “Bergholz Boys” as the attackers.
The "Berholz Boys" struck again against David Wengerd.
Another beard-cutting victim, David Wengerd of Knox County, south of Mansfield, said two of the Bergholz defendants, Levi Miller and Emanuel Shrock, lured him into a field to look at crops, then sheared him.
Wengerd said the men told him the attack was payback for Wengerd allegedly having spread rumors about Bergholz and for calling the sheriff to report them. Afterward, they snapped his photograph with a disposable camera.
The picture that is evolving in the prosecution's case is one of tensions built over time as Bishop Sam Mullet's Bergholz community was increasingly marginalized by other Amish communities who considered his bizarre leadership to be a growing danger. Their fears were only confirmed when Mullet's followers began to terrorize them with raids targeting their Amish identity -- so much so that they took the unusual step of involving the authorities.
The defense seems to be arguing several things at once and, to me, some of it seems mutually contradictory. On the one hand, they counter that these were simply personal and family disputes. Ed Bryan, for instance, raised the issue of dispute over a horse-and-buggy during his cross examination of Myron Miller.
On the other hand, they argue that Mullet was "disciplining" members of other sects, which I can't help but think only reinforces the prosecution's argument that these were religiously motivated attacks. According to some reports the defense has even argued that the defendants were acting out of compassion and concern for their victim's souls -- so this was more love crime than hate crime. Again, I think this argument actually works for the prosecution. It only reinforces the idea they targeted their victims for their religious practices.
The compassion argument seems like a long shot given the naked hostility exhibited in these raids. Levi Miller, for instance, claims to regret the attacks but mostly, by his own admission, he regrets getting caught. He also regrets that he didn't cut off more beard hair if he was going to get caught anyway. There's a real sense that the gang was gleefully taking these trophies, Sam Mullet's son reportedly telling his father, "We got two of them." And the motivation for their hostility seems clear from the statement of Mullet's grandson Melvin Schrock, Jr. "Because they weren't living right."
When they're not arguing that it was loving concern for the victims' souls, the defense argues that such harsh judgments were typical family spats, not religious differences.
Hair-cutting attacks against people in Amish communities outside the city were tinged with squabbles over money, child-rearing and even the way some women in the conservative settlements dressed, more like a family feud than a series of hate crimes, say attorneys for members of a breakaway group accused of carrying them out.
The defense attorneys, while not denying that the hair-cuttings took place, want to convince jurors that religious differences between the Amish were not the motivating factor and that the attacks didn’t amount to amount hate crimes — the most serious charges against the 16 defendants.
But the way women dress -- like their uncut hair -- is at the very heart of Amish religious practice and identity. And changes in women's apparel authorized by Sam Mullet, such as smaller caps that expose the ears, are seen as emblematic of his radicalism and debauchery.
Jury members and spectators alike received a crash course in Amish culture from testimony during the first week of the trial. They had heard a prior witness snap at an unwary lawyer who referred imprecisely to a hair covering, telling him, “It’s a cap, not a bonnet."
To many outside his clique, Mullet’s decision to have the women switch from caps to what others disparaged as “skimpy scarves" was one more sign that he was isolating his flock and leading them into sin.
Of course the fact that Mullet has been demanding sexual favors from a number of his women followers would actually seem to confirm those fears.
Sam Mullet himself has said from the beginning that this is a religious dispute and this case has been repeatedly characterized as a church-state issue by defense attorneys and journalists. I've been saying from the beginning that it's hard to argue that Mullet and his followers had a First Amendment protected right to abuse people but it only gets harder when you're also arguing that religion wasn't even the reason for those attacks.
Some of the confusion and inconsistency may be a result of having too many cooks as I believe some of the sixteen defendants have different attorneys. Maybe they're not all on the same page strategy-wise. It's kind of hard to make sense of all that from news reports. But so far, it seems like kind of a muddle. Of course, muddying the waters and confusing the jury is also a tried and true defense tactic. Perhaps it will be clearer when the defense attorneys present their various cases.