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CLEVELAND — Both prosecutors and the defense attorney conceded on Friday that the leader of a breakaway Amish community received an unofficial life sentence for his role in five beard and hair-cutting attacks that captured the nation’s attention.
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On paper, the 15-year prison sentence handed down to 67-year-old Sam Mullet, Sr., was a compromise. Prosecutors asked U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster to give him a life sentence in the case, which served as a test for a 2009 law that expanded the government’s ability to prosecute people under a federal hate-crimes law. The defense asked for no more than two years in prison.
Both sides said that, because of his age, it’s unlikely Mullet will see life outside of prison.
“This is not a typical case, and everybody recognizes that,” Judge Polster said. “Anyone who says this is just a hair-and-beard-cutting case wasn’t paying attention. These victims were traumatized.”
Beards have special religious significance in conservative Amish communities, and at least one of the victims said that he would have preferred to have been beaten and bruised rather than have his beard destroyed.
Prosecutors have said that Mullet, who led the community in Bergholz, outside Steubenville, was not physically involved in the attacks but that he fostered an environment in which some people were labeled as religious hypocrites who might deserve punishment. In some cases, Mullet’s followers, which included his sons, nieces, and nephews, rushed to his home in the middle of the night to recount the attacks.
“He kept vigil and waited for each attack to occur,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan said. “Each and every time, through his act of not punishing people, he endorsed and ratified those attacks.”
Mullet’s defense attorney did not agree.
“We still seem to be talking about two different cases,” Ed Bryan, assistant U.S. public defender, said. “The government seems to be talking about a case that describes this crazy cultlike environment, where zombies are doing the bidding of Samuel Mullet. And we’re saying what the objective truth is.”
He argued that Mullet didn’t order the attacks and therefore shouldn’t be considered the ringleader. He also said in court filings that no one received serious physical injuries in the attacks and any damage was primarily emotional or psychological.
But the judge didn’t buy his argument.
Five of Mullet’s convicted followers offered to serve all or part of his sentence, further enforcing the prosecution’s theory that he continues to exude authority over the community. The other 15 convicted — nine men and six women — were given sentences that ranged from one year and one day for those deemed least culpable to seven years for those who played the largest roles. Mullet said in his first court testimony since his November, 2011, arrest that he hoped to take the punishment for his co-defendants.
All will face two years of supervised release after their incarceration.
Many of the defendants — the men in orange jumpsuits that read “Inmate” and the women in traditional dresses — sat quietly while the judge outlined his thoughts. Some cried while they gave their final statements before sentencing, each accepting a varying degree of responsibility for their actions.
Their spouses and friends filled the courtroom gallery and then an overflow room, where they watched live feeds of the proceedings on television screens. One woman’s jaw dropped several times.
Defense attorneys and the judge occasionally disagreed over a defendant’s ability to make a decision that departed from Mullet’s wishes.
Ms. Brennan and the judge said the attacks would not have occurred “but not for” Mullet and that each person had some responsibility in the attacks.
Both of their messages echoed a statement Ms. Brennan made in her closing: “Not even Sam Mullet can carve out a place in this country where the only rules that apply are the rules of his own.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Liz Navratil is a writer for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Liz Navratil at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil.