This Day In History: September 20

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16 members of a dissident Amish group in Ohio are convicted of federal hate crimes and conspiracy for forcibly cutting the beards and hair of fellow Amish with whom they had religious differences. The government classified the ruthless attacks as hate crimes because beards and long hair have important religious symbolism to the Amish, who are known for their pacifism, plain style of dress and refusal to use many forms of modern technology.

The men and women convicted in the attacks belonged to a group of about 18 families who lived on an 800-acre farm owned by their leader, Samuel Mullet Sr., near Bergholz, Ohio, 100 miles southeast of Cleveland. Mullet, an Amish bishop and father of 18, masterminded the 2011 attacks against fellow Amish whom he viewed as enemies of his ultraconservative splinter sect. The five separate assaults involved nine people and spread fear through Amish communities in Ohio, home to an Amish population of roughly 60,000. The perpetrators—sometimes wielding shears meant for horse manes—restrained victims and in some cases hurt those who came to their aid. Afterwards, the attackers took photographs in order to further humiliate the injured parties.

The Amish typically resolve disputes on their own, without involving law enforcement; however, several beard cutting victims reported the attacks to police out of concern that Mullet was operating a cult. Mullet (who did not participate directly in the attacks) and a group of his followers were arrested in late 2011, and their case went to trial in late August 2012. It was the first case in Ohio that applied a landmark 2009 federal law—the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act—which gave the government increased powers to prosecute crimes motivated by bigotry.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that Mullet believed he was above the law and kept tight control over his followers with a kind of cult-like domination. Among other things, he censored their mail and imposed punishments on adults such as paddling and confinement in chicken coops. The prosecution also presented witness testimony that Mullet had pressured married female followers to have sex with him under the guise of marital counseling. Defense lawyers, who called no witnesses, did not dispute that the beard and hair cuttings took place. However, they said the acts were simple assaults that did not meet the definition of hate crimes because they were based on personal feuds rather than religious motives. The defense also contended that the shearings were performed out of compassion in order to convince the recipients to return to a stricter Amish lifestyle.

On September 20, 2012, the 66-year-old Mullet was convicted along with three of his sons, one of his daughters and 11 other followers. On February 8, 2013, a federal judge in Cleveland sentenced Mullet to 15 years in prison. His co-defendants received sentences ranging from one to seven years behind bars.