CLEVELAND (AP) — Hair-cutting attacks against people in Amish communities outside the city were tinged with squabbles over money, child-rearing and even the way some women in the conservative settlements dressed, more like a family feud than a series of hate crimes, say attorneys for members of a breakaway group accused of carrying them out.
The defense attorneys, while not denying that the hair-cuttings took place, want to convince jurors that religious differences between the Amish were not the motivating factor and that the attacks didn't amount to amount hate crimes — the most serious charges against the 16 defendants.
Prosecutors say the defendants, who could face lengthy prison terms if convicted, planned or took part in at least one of five attacks last fall, cutting off Amish men's beards and women's hair because they carry spiritual significance in the faith.
The trial, which began last week in federal court, is expected to last two or three weeks, with testimony resuming Wednesday.
A few of the defense attorneys acknowledged last week that their clients participated in the hair-cuttings and deserved to be punished but maintained that the Amish have a closed society and are accustomed to handling their own problems. Some said the defendants had become concerned that their estranged family members and others were straying from their religion and took action to get them back together.
"They will take upon their selves to correct others' behavior," attorney Brian Pierce told jurors. "Some of the things they do may seem strange to us."
The attorney for Sam Mullet Sr., accused of being the group's ringleader, says the intent wasn't to hurt anybody.
"What he's saying is these are personal, family disputes," attorney Ed Bryan said during opening statements.
In what prosecutors say was the first attack, six siblings and their spouses hired a driver and traveled for two hours to an Amish settlement in Bergholz, a small village 80 miles southeast of Cleveland. The group took off their father's hair and beard and then took off 2 feet of their mother's hair, one of the participants testified last week.
Nancy Burkholder, who received immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony, said she and her five brothers were upset with their parents after they moved out of the settlement led by Mullet. She said they wanted their mother and father to see their mistakes "to help get them to heaven."
Burkholder said she and her husband lost their farm after her parents, Marty and Barbara Miller, refused to sign refinancing papers. She also accused her father of belittling her brothers and scolding her for wearing two colors, something that's frowned upon by some conservative Amish groups.
Barbara Miller denied that her husband had been a bad father. She said she and her husband decided not to help Burkholder and her husband with financing their farm because they felt their children had fallen under the control of Mullet and were behaving as though they were in a cult.
"We want them to have an eternal home," Miller said. "That's why we did not sign those papers."
Mullet has said he didn't order the hair-cuttings but didn't stop people from carrying them out.