Prosecution, defense both rest in trial of Amish beard-cutting cult
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Wednesday September 12, 2012
Defense lawyers in the hate crimes trial of Amish bishop Samuel Mullet and 15 of his followers rested their case Tuesday without calling a single witness.
The 16 defense lawyers — one for each member of the Amish sect on trial for a series of beard and hair cutting attacks on fellow Amish — and Federal prosecutors will hold their closing arguments today, after which the jury will be instructed.
In an unprecedented application of a landmark 2009 federal law that expanded government powers to prosecute hate crimes, the clan members were charged with hate crimes because prosecutors believe the attacks were motivated by religious differences.
Among the Amish after marriage men grow beards and women let their hair grow long in devotion to God.
According to an FBI affidavit sometime around 2005 Mullet excommunicated a number of people who had criticized him and left his community.
Excommunication bars an Amish member from having any religious affiliation without the blessing of the excommunicating Bishop. Other Amish communities are not permitted to accept an excommunicated person into their communities.
However, a committee of Amish bishops determined that Mullet’s excommunications were not consistent with Amish teachings and scripture.
The committee determined that Samuel Mullet’s excommunications were instead based on his decision to seek revenge and punish the departing families. The committee therefore overturned the excommunications, permitting the families to join other Amish communities.
This decision is believed to be the reason behind the beard- and hair cutting attacks.
Last October sect leader Samuel Mullet told The Associated Press that he did not order the hair-cutting attacks but that he also did not stop his sons and others from carrying them out. He said the goal of the hair-cutting was to send a message to Amish that they should be ashamed of themselves for the way they were treating him and his community.
Defense attorneys have claimed that the attacks were due to personal, family feuds and child custody disputes.
They even stated that their clients acted “out of compassion — trying, with admittedly misguided methods, to help them repent and see the true Amish way.”
Each of the 16 defendant faces five years in prison if convicted of conspiracy, but hate crime charges could spell a life sentence.
Tradmarks of a cult
Donald Kraybill, one of the country’s leading experts on the Amish religion, testified that the radical practices of Mullet’s breakaway sect of 18 families bore all of the trademarks of a cult. He called the Mullet clan a “lone ranger group” that vilified the outside world.
“There was ample evidence that since 2009 they no longer held church services, and showed a complete disregard for traditional Amish doctrine,” testified Kraybill, a cultural anthropologist and professor from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
To discipline religious opponents with beard and hair cutting violates the fundamental Amish beliefs of a non-violent, non-vengeful society, Kraybill testified.
He expressed disbelief and disgust at the self-imposed discipline advocated by Mullet, including spending up to 12 days at a time living in a chicken coop, spanking of adults, submitting themselves to voluntary hair- and beard-cutting, and engaging in sexual relations with the wives of his followers.
“I’ve never heard of that in the history of the Amish church,” Kraybill testified. “It’s not an Amish thing.”
Kraybill cited a historic 2006 bishop’s meeting in Ulysses, Pa., at which more than 300 bishops learned about Mullet’s shunnings and how some members of his clan were fearful of Mullet and were abandoning the Bergholz settlement in the middle of the night.
The bishops voted to overturn a half-dozen of Mullet’s excommunications of Bergholz Amish members who had challenged his rulings or offended him by moving away. The conclave decided Mullet’s excommunications were not made for biblical or religious reasons, and that he failed to consult his congregation, as required by Amish law.
“This was like an earthquake in the Amish world,” Kraybill said.
Mullet was furious at the rebuke. Federal prosecutors pointed to the bishops’ decision as the triggering motive for several of the beard-cutting attacks, including that of bishop Raymond Hershberger of Holmes County.
Federal prosecutors were forbidden from describing Mullet’s group with words such cult, sect, clan, band, schism, faction, off-shoot, breakaway, renegade, rogue or splinter group.
But witnesses were allowed to describe the group using any terms they chose.
In addition Federal prosecutors were allowed to question witnesses about Amish leader Sam Mullet’s sexual activities.
According to the FBI, former members claim Mullet has been “counseling” married women in his clan, taking them into his home “so that he may cleanse them of the devil with acts of sexual intimacy.”
Prosecutors says this practice demonstrates the level of control Mullet had over his followers.
On Monday Barbara Yoder, daughter of Samuel Mullet and a reluctant prosecution witness, said that victims of beard and hair-cutting attacks were hypocrites who only pretended to live an Amish life.
Yoder, who responded tersely to prosecutors’ questions, said she believed the attacks would eventually help the victims to receive salvation.
Yoder also described some of the discipline Mullet’s followers voluntarily endured, including sleeping for weeks in a chicken coop or cutting their own hair and beards.
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