May 4, 2016

Amish beard-cutting convictions upheld by federal appeals court

Eric Heisig 
May 04, 2016

CINCINNATI, Ohio — A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld the criminal convictions against more than a dozen members of an Amish community who orchestrated a series of beard-cutting attacks against its enemies.

A three-judge panel from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that the 15 defendants who challenged their convictions did so too late. This is their second appeal and the arguments raised the second time around were waived because they weren't brought up the first time, the opinion says.

"In criminal case after criminal case, we have declined to allow a criminal defendant who fails to challenge part of a conviction in an earlier appeal to raise it in a later appeal," Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in the opinion. "Seeing no fair reason to give full review to these arguments now, especially as no defendant has explained the omissions from the earlier appeal, we decline to break from this consistent practice."

(You can read the full opinion here or at the bottom of this story.)

The defendants are members of a breakaway sect of an Amish community made up of 18 families in the Jefferson County community of Bergholz, located about 100 miles southeast of Cleveland. They were convicted of multiple crimes in September 2012 for carrying out five nighttime raids in 2011.

Members of the community rousted five victims out of bed and chopped off their beards and hair with horse mane shears and battery-powered clippers. The attackers documented the attacks with a disposable camera.

Prosecutors brought hate-crime and obstruction charges against 16 members of the Amish community. They said the attacks were carried out at the behest of Bishop Samuel Mullet against the bishop's enemies. Witnesses portrayed him as a fire-and-brimstone preacher who imposed strict, and often bizarre, discipline on his flock.

The 6th Circuit later overturned the hate-crime convictions, citing faulty jury instructions. Cleveland-based U.S. District Judge Dan Polster re-sentenced all of them to shorter sentences in March 2015, and noted that it was clear that the attacks were religiously motivated.

Men's beards and women's hair have spiritual significance to the Amish.

Mullet, 70, is serving a 10-year, nine-month prison sentence at a minimum-security prison in Lisbon. Other defendants were re-sentenced to between one and five years in prison, though Ed Bryan, Mullet's federal public defender, said all but Mullet have been released.

In its new opinion, the 6th Circuit, which Sutton called "a sequel," also rejected arguments challenging the new sentences. Sutton wrote that while some of the defendants argued that their sentences were too harsh, he felt that they were "substantively reasonable."

News of the attacks made national headlines and raised questions about the federal hate-crimes law, which carries much harsher sentencing enhancements.

Mike Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said in a statement that the appeals court "recognized the district court's finding that the violent attacks committed by Samuel Mullet and his 15 co-defendants were religiously motivated hate crimes.

"We hope that this fact, along with the fact that Samuel Mullet will remain incarcerated for his convictions on obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI, allow the victims of these attacks to continue living their lives safely and peacefully."

Bryan said he would petition the full 6th Circuit to hear the case. He said he is disappointed with the ruling and feels the judges did not recognize that Mullet's sentence is disproportionately long compared to those in the case who were convicted of more serious offenses.

He said his client "pays the toll for everyone else's conduct."

Updated with background, more from the appeals court's opinion and comments  from the U.S. Attorney's Office and Mullet's attorney.

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