Sep 13, 2012

Amish Hair-Cutting Case Goes to the Jury

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

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The jury will begin deliberations today as to the guilt or innocence of Sam Mullet and fifteen of his followers.

Jurors will begin deliberating on Thursday whether Samuel Mullet Sr. and 15 of his followers are guilty of federal hate crimes for the attacks on nine Amish men and women last fall.

All 16 were charged with conspiracy to commit a hate crime, and some face charges of lying to police or withholding evidence. They face up to life in prison if convicted.

It's hard to get a sense of how a trial is going from press reports alone. But from those accounts, I can't help thinking this trial was a slam dunk for the federal prosecutors. They built a strong case and the defense closed quickly providing no witnesses. Sam Mullet's attorney Edward Bryan is certainly right that the burden of proof is on the prosecution and the defense has no requirement to mount a defense at all. But in this case it looks like they didn't present a case because they just didn't have a reasonable defense to present.

From the press accounts, their various defense strategies look to have been all over the map and internally contradictory. They disputed none of the factual elements of the case, neither the attacks themselves, nor the shocking disciplinary and sexual demands of the Bergholz bishop. They simultaneously claimed that these were not religiously motivated attacks, but based entirely on family and financial disputes, and that the attackers acted out of concern for the souls of their victims, which would seem to imply a religious motivation.

"These were acts of love," said attorney Dean Carro, who represents Lester Miller, who is accused of cutting his father's hair.

Miller and his siblings didn't intend to hurt their father or mother, Carro said. "The reasons they did these things is because they thought they deviated from the Amish path," he said.

Defense arguments wandered into the completely implausible and ridiculous.

"Use common sense," defense attorney Neal Atway told jurors. "What happened was offensive, but what crime was committed?"

Um... assault and battery? Is it a hate crime? That's debatable and something the jury will have to determine, but there's little question that these people were violated. I just don't think that trivializing the suffering of very sympathetic witnesses, who wept openly about their terror and shame as a result of these attacks, will go over too well. And some of these attorneys sound like schoolyard bullies telling victims to just get over it.

Attorney Brian M. Pierce scoffed at the idea that the haircutting amounted to bodily injury. Some of the victims said the shears used to take their hair bloodied their scalps. One bishop whose beard was cut refused to preach until it grew back.

"Emotional harm is not bodily injury," Pierce said. "The beards grew back."

As for Sam Mullet, who did not participate in the attacks themselves, prosecutors had to prove his direct involvement. They have definitely demonstrated that he had a dictatorial control over his followers, convincing them to spend up to twelve days in a chicken coop and to cut their own hair and beards, when they stepped out of line. He also used his authority to coerce sex from his own very reluctant daughter-in-law among others.

More damning still are some details that came out in the write-ups on the prosecution's closing argument.

The defendants openly discussed the attacks before and after they happened, and Mullet's followers brought him hair they cut as trophies and took pictures so he could see what the victims looked like after the attacks, Parker said.

Lest we forget, some of these trophies were recovered from Sam Mullet's property. And the prosecutor's reasoning is pretty solid.

"He is different from everyone else. He didn't get any blood or hair on himself, but none of the terror would have happened without him," Parker said.

All of the victims, she said, were people who had a dispute with Mullet over his religious practices and his authoritarian rule over the settlement he founded.

Mullet and his followers "believed they knew best how to practice the Amish faith and held the keys to heaven," Parker said. "If these assaults were merely personal, why did the defendants zero in on the beards and head hair?"

But the strongest indication that the prosecution put on a very strong case comes from Sam Mullet's attorney.

Mullet's attorney, Ed Bryan, said prosecutors presented a "pretty little package" that read like a movie script.

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