published Friday, September 21st, 2012

Bond at risk for Ohio Amish hate-crime defendants

  • photo
    An Amish man boards his transportation vehicle outside the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Cleveland on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. The jury found all 16 Amish people guilty in the hair- and beard-cutting attacks against fellow Amish in Ohio. (AP Photo/Scott R. Galvin)
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

THOMAS J. SHEERAN

CLEVELAND (AP) — Nine of 16 Amish convicted in beard- and hair-cutting attacks on fellow Amish in Ohio have remained free, but the government asked Friday to have them locked up, which could leave up to 50 children with one or both parents behind bars.

By law, "Detention is mandatory for these defendants," the government said.

But prosecutors hedged, saying their strong recommendation for pre-sentence lockup of three of those most involved in the crimes would leave only one family with both parents in jail, not four.

U.S. District Court Judge Dan Aaron Polster, who presided at the Cleveland trial, gave defense attorneys until Thursday to argue for continued bond for the six women and three men.

Polster has scheduled sentencing for Jan. 24. Ring leader Sam Mullet Sr., 66, faces up to life in prison and the lowest sentencing range for those out on bond is 17 years, the government said.

The defense plans to appeal the convictions.

Brian Pierce, attorney for Elizabeth Miller, 38, the mother of 11 and married to defendant Lester Miller, 37, said he would appeal for leniency in view of her big family and lack of any prior criminal record.

Having both parents in prison poses "an extreme family hardship," Pierce said before the prosecution filing. "They need to make arrangements in the event she is incarcerated."

Lester Miller, Raymond Miller and Linda Schrock were the three whose continued freedom on bond was opposed by prosecutors.

Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, whose office has investigated Mullet's community for years, said Friday he had received calls from relatives outside the community offering to care for the children if their parents go to prison.

"It's Amish wanting to take these kids in. It's their relatives, it's their uncles, it's their aunts," he said. "That's the Amish, that's their culture. They are loving people, good people, God-fearing people."

When the 16 rejected lenient plea deals July 30, with some possibly getting probation, Polster quizzed the defendants about their understanding of the consequences of a conviction.

He asked the defendants if they understood possible sentences for a conviction, asked their ages and number of children and whether they knew that, in some cases, they could be locked up to age 50 or 60. Most are under 40 years old.

All acknowledged an understanding, but one defense attorney said he wasn't sure they were really aware of the consequences. "It's something beyond their imagination," said Joseph Dubyak.

His client, Linda Schrock, has 10 children with her husband, who was also convicted, and their 20- and 21-year-olds have been looking after the younger children during the trial.

Asked how the families would fare with long prison terms, Dubyak said, "Who knows? Not that it's a good solution, but the Amish are pretty resourceful and they are a family, the church unit. They all kind of work together."

Rhonda Kotnik, representing Kathryn Miller, said the verdicts would destroy the Amish community of about 25 families.

"The community is going to be ripped apart. I don't know what's going to happen to all their children," she said.

Mullet, the leader of the breakaway group, was found guilty of orchestrating the cuttings last fall.

The government said the cuttings were an attempt to shame members of Mullet's community who he believed were straying from their beliefs. His followers were found guilty of carrying out the attacks, which terrorized the normally peaceful religious settlement that aims to live simply and piously.

Prosecutors and witnesses described how sons pulled their father out of bed and chopped off his beard in the moonlight and how women surrounded their mother-in-law and cut off two feet of her hair, taking it down to the scalp in some places.

Prosecutors say they targeted hair because it carries spiritual significance in their faith.

All the defendants are members of Mullet's settlement that he founded in eastern Ohio near the West Virginia panhandle. The Amish eschew many conveniences of modern life, including electrical appliances and automobiles, and embrace their centuries-old roots.

Members of the Amish community who sat through the trial hurried into a hired van without commenting, some covering their faces.

The suspects had argued that the Amish are bound by different rules guided by their religion and that the government had no place getting involved in what amounted to a family or church dispute.

Mullet wasn't accused of cutting anyone's hair. But prosecutors said he planned and encouraged his sons and the others, mocked the victims in jailhouse phone calls and was given a paper bag stuffed with the hair of one victim.

One bishop told jurors his chest-length beard was chopped to within 1½ inches of his chin when four or five men dragged him out of his farmhouse in a late-night home invasion.

Prosecutors told jurors that Mullet thought he was above the law and free to discipline those who went against him based on his religious beliefs. Before his arrest last November, he defended what he believes is his right to punish people who break church laws.

"You have your laws on the road and the town — if somebody doesn't obey them, you punish them. But I'm not allowed to punish the church people?" Mullet told The Associated Press last October.

The hair cuttings, he said, were a response to continuous criticism he'd received from other Amish religious leaders about him being too strict, including shunning people in his own group.

Defense attorneys acknowledged that the hair cuttings took place and that crimes were committed but contend that prosecutors were overreaching by calling them hate crimes.

One woman testified that Mullet coerced women at his settlement into having sex with him, and others said he encouraged men to sleep in chicken coops as punishment.

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