Photo by Alvin Trusty

Although the Amish attacks were brazen, victims were initially reluctant to come forward, in part because the Amish community is insulated from mainstream society

The JETlaw Blog typically focuses on the cutting edge of technological innovation and the laws that govern it.  Today, however, we are going to take a moment to remind ourselves that technology cannot solve all of our problems, and neither can avoiding technology altogether.

Last Friday, a District Court in Ohio sentenced the leader of a group of criminals to fifteen years in prison.  The facts leading to his and his crime ring’s arrest?  Forcibly cutting the beards and hair off of other Amish citizens.  The perpetrator was Samuel Mullet, Sr., a sexagenarian bishop from Berholz, Ohio.  Mullet led a sect of people to use horse shears and scissors to remove the religiously symbolic head and facial hair from neighbors and parents.

Bishop Mullet orchestrated the de-bearding attacks to shame other Amish men and women whom he believed to be living less piously then they ought.  As is commonly known, the Amish grow their hair and beards to show strength in their faith, and by cutting it down to the face and scalp, Mullet and his cohorts aimed to send a message to the community.  While the Amish people are generally self-regulating, brave victims came before the court to testify about 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.”

The prosecution charged Mullet and the members of the crime ring not just for simple assault, but with violating the hate-crimes statute.  ”The victims in this case are members of a peaceful and traditional religion who simply wanted to be left to practice their religion in peace,” U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said.  “Unfortunately, the defendants denied them this basic right, and they did so in the most violent way.”  The defendant received fifteen years, but the prosecution tried to give him life in prison for leading the attacks that deprived the victims of their constitutionally protected freedom of religion.

It is sad to think that most of the defendants in this case had no idea how the United States legal system operates.  While ignorance of the law is no defense, counsel for the defendants still intend to challenge the constitutionality of the hate laws.  During the trial, the suspects asserted 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.”  It seems unlikely that such an argument will carry much weight, but while we argue about Apple and Samsung and patent trolls, let us not forget about our luddite comrades and their struggles with dissident cults like Bishop Mullet’s.

J.P. Urban

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3 Responses to Hate Crimes, Beards, and a Mullet

  1. John Lomascolo says:

    I have to say, I also really like how you highlighted an issue regarding the LACK of technology, but I’m somewhat on the fence when it comes to this case. There are definitely elements of this that seem like prosecutorial overreaching. I think trying to sentence the defendant to life in prison for cutting off someone’s beard is absolutely ridiculous, and was most likely an attempt to get a plea deal. But I don’t think this is necessarily an improper application of the hate crime statute. It seems minuscule, or odd to us, that cutting off a beard could fit the definition of a hate crime, but given the meaning and significance of bears and hair in the Amish community, I think it fits the definition quite well. Their hair is a prominent and important tenant of their belief system, and a symbol as to how committed they are to their beliefs. To me, cutting off an Amish person’s beard isn’t much different than chopping down a cross someone had in their yard because you were anti-Catholic, or because their way of practicing Catholicism didn’t match your own. This is undoubtedly a bit of a grey area that is clearly susceptible to prosecutorial overreaching, which I think did take place here, but at the same time I do think it is a crime that should not go unnoticed or unpunished.

  2. Joanna Collins says:

    J.P., I really like that, as JETLaw focuses on technological innovation, you highlighted a unique perspective and community. I think this story also speaks to the invidious problem of overcharging and mischarging in our criminal justice system. Prosecutors have an incentive to overcharge because, among other reasons, this pressures defendants to accept a plea bargain rather than take their case to trial. However, it is difficult to accept that the wrongdoing in this case lines up with the spirit of the hate crime statutes. While it is possible, as a technical matter, that it falls within the definitions of the statutes, I agree with the defense that this charge is prosecutorial overreaching. This is a problem that happens all the time; another example is when teenagers are charged with distributing child pornography for “sexting” each other. This prosecutorial practice is damaging for a number of reasons: (1) it undermines the significance of our laws against offenses such as hate crimes and child pornography; (2) it unfairly labels and stigmatizes defendants; and (3) it defies the idea that the punishment should fit the crime.