CLEVELAND (AP) — A breakaway group that carried out hair-cutting attacks against fellow Amish in eastern Ohio thought they were above the law because of their religious beliefs, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday during closing arguments of their hate crimes trial.
Sixteen members of the group planned or took part in the attacks last fall because of disputes involving their bishop and other Amish people who criticized his ways and accused him of leading a cult, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristy Parker.
The bishop, Sam Mullet Sr., thought that the government should stay out of the dispute because he wanted to be able to punish those who went against him, she said. "That is where he's absolutely wrong," Parker said.
Prosecutors charged the suspects with hate crimes because they believe religious differences brought about the five separate attacks. They say the defendants cut off Amish men's beards and women's hair because the hair carries spiritual significance in the faith.
None of the defense attorneys denied that hair-cuttings took place. Some said their clients participated, but they said what happened didn't amount to hate crimes. Some of the attorneys claimed the hair-cuttings were motivated by family feuds or that the defendants were trying to help others who were straying from their Amish beliefs.
"These were acts of love," said attorney Dean Carro, who represents Lester Miller, who is accused of cutting his father's hair.
Miller and his siblings didn't intend to hurt their father or mother, Carro said. "The reasons they did these things is because they thought they deviated from the Amish path," he said.
Other defense attorneys were to deliver their closing arguments later Wednesday.
Mullet has denied ordering the hair-cutting but said he didn't stop anyone from carrying it out.
Testimony ended two weeks after the trial began. Those who testified included the son of an Amish bishop whose beard was cut and the Holmes County sheriff, whose jurisdiction has one of the nation's biggest Amish settlements.
Defense attorneys didn't call witnesses.
The defendants, who live in the Bergholz settlement in eastern Ohio, could face lengthy prison terms if convicted on charges that include conspiracy and obstructing justice.
The government contends the hair-cutting was motivated by a religious dispute between Mullet and other Amish bishops who had sought to limit his authority.
Prosecutors said Mullet was vindictive and had complete control over people in his community, taking part in the sexual "counseling" of married women and punishing others by forcing them to sleep in chicken coops.