Hate-Crime Trial Offers a Crash Course in Amish Folkways
By Erik Eckholm
CLEVELAND — When Nancy Mullet entered a federal courtroom here on Thursday to testify in the hate-crimes trial of her father-in-law, Samuel Mullet Sr., and followers of his renegade sect, the jury knew at a glance which side she favored in this wrenching clash among Amish.
She was not wearing the small white scarf, tied behind the head to reveal the ears, that was adopted last year by Mr. Mullet’s group and adorned his six female co-defendants and a dozen other women from his settlement who watched the proceedings from the gallery.
Instead, she wore the traditional white cap with a chin tie that is preferred by most of the region’s conservative Amish orders. As she walked to the witness chair, she passed a cluster of women wearing the same kind of cap, who had come in support of victims of the peculiar beard-cutting attacks by Mr. Mullet’s followers that roiled eastern Ohio last fall.
Jury members and spectators alike received a crash course in Amish culture from testimony during the first week of the trial. They had heard a prior witness snap at an unwary lawyer who referred imprecisely to a hair covering, telling him, “It’s a cap, not a bonnet.”
For the Amish, seemingly small distinctions in clothing are filled with religious meaning. To many outside his clique, Mr. Mullet’s decision to have the women switch from caps to what others disparaged as “skimpy scarves” was one more sign that he was isolating his flock and leading them into sin.
Adopting different headgear was hardly Mr. Mullet’s most serious transgression in the years leading up to last fall’s violence. According to Amish critics, Mr. Mullet created a cult with decidedly un-Amish traits, including sexual favors for the bishop (himself), unheard-of methods of discipline, such as forcing miscreants to ponder their sins in a chicken coop, and festering anger at those who quit his church.
For the Amish, the minute practices of daily life, from hair coverings to choice of buggy wheels, are intertwined with their fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
The 16 defendants could be tried for simple assault without going into the fine points of what those on both sides call the Amish way. But to prove the far more serious hate-crime charges brought here by the United States attorney, Steven M. Dettelbach, prosecutors must show that religious differences drove the attacks. Groups from Mr. Mullet’s 18-family settlement near Bergholz, Ohio, are accused of forcibly shearing the beards and hair of perceived enemies.
So prosecutors have stressed the religious aspects of Mr. Mullet’s bitter feuds with critics and those who dared flee his settlement, and whom he accused of doing the Devil’s work. They have heard Amish describe how profoundly their self-worth is tied to their uncut beards — Mr. Mullet’s is a foot long — and hair. One of the forcibly shorn men, his wife said, sat through dinners holding his napkin over his chin.
To counter the hate-crime charges, defense lawyers have tried to focus instead on the personal grudges and family disputes that affected the choice of victims.
Between the symbol-laden appearance of many in the courtroom and statements that, coming from the reticent Amish, can only be called startling, the trial has presented a spectacle. Mr. Mullet’s wife, Martha, sat impassively as she heard her daughter-in-law describe being repeatedly forced into sex with Mr. Mullet, only to have him call her a whore when she finally refused. Two of Mr. Mullet’s brothers and two of his sisters in the gallery — in caps, not scarves — barely concealed their disgust as defense lawyers described his odd practices as true Amish.