Fortunately for the young rape victims involved, justice was not given short shrift in a rare Ohio case of Amish crimes prosecuted in secular court. In September it appeared that an Amish man charged with raping two girls, ages 3 and 5, would be allowed to cop a plea bargain to stay out of prison. But justice prevailed in the sentencing phase of Norman Byler's case.
His lawyer had argued that prison life would be difficult for the 69-year-old practicing member of an Amish congregation in Birmingham, who had been largely insulated from the outside world. His family and Amish community in eastern Ohio lobbied for his release to the church, which has its own form of justice for members who go astray.
The Amish population in rural Guernsey County closed ranks around their fallen brother, making prosecution difficult at best. So Byler's attorneys persuaded the county prosecutor to allow the defendant to plead guilty to lesser charges of sexual battery in exchange for freedom and treatment in a nonresidential sexual offender program.
Almost lost in the plea-bargain recommendation to Common Pleas Judge David Ellwood was the initial charge against Byler of 11 counts of rape and gross sexual imposition on the two pre-schoolers.
Court records say the assaults occurred between June 1 and Oct. 31, 1999. Sheriff's detectives were alerted to the crime by non-Amish neighbors who observed one of the children bleeding.
To his credit, the judge rejected the plea bargain proposal and sentenced Byler to five years in prison. He didn't buy rehabilitation for Byler and labeled him a sexual predator, which will require him to register with the county sheriff after prison.
The Amish community may prefer to discipline its own without secular interference, but the state of Ohio has an overriding interest in protecting its own from harm. An Amish bishop ordered Byler shunned, a shaming ritual short of excommunication, as punishment for his crimes. But enforcement of church law should have no bearing on enforcement of state law.
Byler's attorney plans to challenge the prison sentence, but Judge Ellwood showed that regardless of Amish or “English” perspectives, justice will be delivered to Byler's victims.
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