CINCINNATI — 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 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, Mullet and his lawyers accuse the federal government of overreach.
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 led by the Anti-Defamation League filed a brief with the court asking the conviction be upheld.
But other civil libertarian groups have opposed hate crimes laws, arguing that they essentially criminalize thought.
Among 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 horse shears and hair clippers used in the attacks were made outside of Ohio, as were several vehicles Mullet’s followers used to arrive at 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.”
Using the government’s theory of the Mullet case, she said, nearly any crime committed in America could be federalized.
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.
“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.”
In addition, she accused the government of trying to literally sex up the case by introducing evidence that Mullet was having sex with his daughter-in-law. To try to show his cultlike control over his community, prosecutors alleged that Mullet “counseled” married women by having sex with them.
Ms. Overmyer said that evidence should not have been presented.
“What was on trial, and what should have been the trial’s narrow focus, was Mullet’s actual role, if any, in the alleged hair-cutting conspiracy,” she said.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Torsten Ove is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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