Amish Hate Crime Trial Begins in Ohio

Ana Abraham

Samuel Mullet Sr. is an Amish man living in rural Eastern Ohio. He lives on an 800-acre compound where he is considered a religious leader.

He, along with 15 of his followers (some of whom are his children and most of whom are somehow related to him) stand accused of hate crimes in connection to 2011 attacks on other Amish people.

In the words of Prosecutor Bridget Brennan, in the Amish faith, “A man’s beard and a woman’s hair are sacred religious symbols…symbols of righteousness, religious symbols that God is present in their lives.”

Mullet and his followers allegedly forcibly cut the beards and hair of several members of their sect.

One such instance was photographed and released by the prosecution.

Defense counsel for Mullet is not denying that the photograph shows his client cutting the hair of Raymond Hershberger, an Amish elder, but instead insists the circumstances were not those that constitute a hate crime. Attorney Dean Carro said the reason for the actions of the 16 individuals was “compassion”.

Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

Since the hair cutting attacks are being seen as attacks on religious practice—one accused man allegedly said to victims Barbara and Marty Miller, “God is not with you,”—they are being prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Much controversy has surrounded the question of how Mullet and his followers chose their victims. Reports indicate that the victims are mostly men and women who had helped others leave Mullet’s sect in the past, or those who Mullet and his followers believe live in a religiously impure way.

The sect calls itself the Bergholz Clan, named for the town where their compound is.

The FBI, in an affidavit, alleges that Samuel Mullet imposed very strict punishments on anyone in his community who disobeyed his wishes. He supposedly forced men to sleep in a chicken coop on his property, sometimes for several days at a time, and also had sexual relations with some of his married female followers to “counsel” them and “cleanse them of the devil”.

He has stated, on more than one occasion, that he is not running a cult.

In addition to the charges relating to hate crimes, members of the sect will also face charges of kidnapping, conspiracy and obstruction.

Some could face 20 years to life in prison if convicted. In response to the allegations, Mullet stated, “Beard-cutting is a crime, is it?”

The trial began in Cleveland, Ohio on Monday, Aug. 27, with jury selection.