Judge allows questions on sex practices in Amish beard-cutting case

CLEVELAND (RNS)  Federal prosecutors will be allowed to question witnesses about Amish leader Sam Mullet’s sexual activities when the hate-crime trial of Mullet and 15 followers begins next week, a federal judge ruled Monday (Aug. 20).

U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster also agreed to allow testimony about Mullet’s use of corporal punishment to control followers, but forbid prosecutors from describing his group with words such as cult, sect, clan, band, schism, faction, offshoot, breakaway, renegade, rogue or splinter group. Witnesses, however, can use any terms they choose.

Polster’s rulings set the stage for a trial that is scheduled to begin Aug. 27 and is expected to attract national attention because of the unusual nature of the charges and the glimpse the case offers into a reclusive Amish community.

Mullet and his co-defendants face charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, hate crimes and obstruction. Prosecutors contend that Mullet orchestrated attacks in which some of his followers forcibly cut the beards or hair of nine of their religious enemies last year.

Defense attorneys had sought to forbid references to "salacious" accusations that Mullet gave sexual counseling sessions to women followers. The lawyers called the accusations inflammatory, unfair, unproven, and unrelated to the charges.

Prosecutors said they expect several women to testify to having sexual relations with Mullet. That testimony, prosecutors said, will support the premise that Mullet, a bishop, used the sexual liaisons to exert control over his flock, which contributed to disputes in the community and provided the motivation behind the hair-cutting assaults.

Mullet, 66, of Bergholz, Ohio, could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

According to the indictment, women in the Bergholz Amish community were expected to leave their husbands and children and to live with Mullet. Anyone who disobeyed or resisted was ostracized from the community, the charging document said.

Polster agreed to allow the testimony, but said he will instruct the jury that Mullet is not charged with any sex-related crimes.

"All I want is the testimony that the practice occurred," Polster said. "That Mr. Mullet encouraged married women to experience this sort of sexual counseling. That’s it."

Edward Bryan, Mullet’s attorney, called the testimony highly prejudicial, and damaging enough to convince the jury to convict him on that basis alone. He warned that the trial should not turn into "a venue to falsely smear an entire Amish community.

"Sam Mullet’s sexual relations three or four years earlier had nothing to do with their motivations," Bryan said. "These were personal disagreements. Nobody says Sam Mullet ever told anyone to do anything."

But Polster disagreed. "It puts the whole thing into context," he said.

In other rulings, Polster said he will allow prosecutors to call as an expert witness Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., and an authority on the Amish religion, to testify about the significance of beards on men and long hair on women.

The judge also will not require Amish witnesses to swear to tell the truth — a violation of their religion — but will only require them to affirm their truthfulness.

Polster decided to allow the opposing sides to argue to the jury whether hair- and beard-cutting constitutes "bodily injury" -- a legal requirement for the definition of a hate crime. Prosecutors noted that an element of bodily injury is disfigurement, which they said includes hair-cutting. Defense lawyers opposed allowing that broad definition.

Prosecutors have said they expect Mullet's followers will testify at trial that the forcible removal of an Amish man’s beard or an Amish woman’s head hair is akin to being "beaten up." Defense attorneys will argue it does not constitute bodily injury.

"If the defense wants to argue that it's not bodily injury, they're free to do so," Polster said. "I'm not going to define it."

(James F. McCarty writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.)