Amish sect leader challenges U.S. in new appeal in beard-cutting case

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Convicted Ohio Amish sect leader Sam Mullet has challenged his 15-year prison sentence for orchestrating a series of beard-chopping attacks on other Amish, saying the federal hate crimes law that put him behind bars violates the U.S. Constitution and was improperly applied in his case.

The Justice Department used the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act to convict Mr. Mullet and 15 followers of hacking off the beards and hair of fellow Amish in a series of 2011 attacks meant to humiliate them for straying from the faith.

In a new appeal filed Monday before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Mr. Mullet and his lawyers accuse the federal government of overreaching to make their case.

The arguments are similar to those made before, during and after the Mullet clan's federal trial in Ohio in 2012. All 16 were found guilty.

The case has become a touchstone for hate crimes legislation.

Earlier this month, a coalition of 40 civil rights, religious and ethnic groups led by the Anti-Defamation League filed a brief with the court asking that the conviction be upheld.

But other civil libertarian groups have opposed hate crimes laws, arguing that they essentially criminalize thought.

Among Mr. Mullet's claims is that the federal government should not have been involved in the first place.

At best, he and his lawyers argue, the prosecution should have been handled as an assault case in state court.

Mullet lawyer Wendi Overmyer said the government overstepped its bounds by grafting an interstate commerce nexus onto the beard-choppings to make them federal crimes.

Federal prosecutors based their case in part on the fact that the horse shears and hair clippers used in the attacks were made outside of Ohio, as were several vehicles used in transporting Mr. Mullet's followers to the attack scenes.

Ms. Overmyer said that while the Justice Department is justified in prosecuting child porn, bomb-making, firearms trafficking and other crimes that involve true interstate commerce, she said "there is no interstate market in hate-motivated crimes."

Ms. Overmyer also criticized the judge in the case for telling jurors that they could consider other motives beyond religious hatred as motivation for the attacks.

She said the hate crimes law requires a direct connection between motive and act, but the government didn't prove that connection.

"The victims were not chosen because they were Amish; rather, the victims and the defendants both happen to be Amish," she wrote. "The incidents were not based in anti-Amish bias."

Ms. Overmyer said the victims were involved in "long-standing" familial disputes with other community members, including child custody, parental-child issues and other disagreements.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-231-0132. First Published March 31, 2014 3:30 PM


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