Aug. 27, 2012— -- Jury selection began today in the hate crimes trial of Samuel Mullet Sr. and 15 followers of his breakaway sect, who are accused of forcibly cutting the beards and hair of other Amish men and women.
U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster began the morning interviewing 81 people in the jury pool, asking them their views on whether the government has the right to file charges based on religion, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.
The defendants have maintained the alleged attacks were a matter of internal discipline and not connected to any religious bias. All 16 defendants have pleaded not guilty, many rejecting plea deals that would have sent them to prison for two to three years.
The government revealed Friday that horse mane shears, along with hair samples, recorded jailhouse phone calls, and a camera they say was used to photograph the victims have been entered in the Cleveland court as evidence in the case.
But at least one of the criminal complaints filed against bishop Samuel Mullet Sr. and members of his family claimed that the group was waging a violent campaign targeted at community members on the other side of a church feud.
They now face potentially lengthy federal prison sentences if they are convicted of conspiracy to violate the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The Amish believe the Bible instructs men to wear beards and stop shaving once they marry and for women grow their hair long.
"Victims will testify that the loss of their beards caused them great distress and embarrassment and altered their life activities to the point that they did not want to appear in public," prosecutors said, seeking to back their hate crimes charge.
Court documents trace the root of the conflict back to 2005, when members reportedly began leaving Mullet's sect because of his controlling behavior.
His former daughter- and son-in-law told investigators that Mullet exercised complete authority over the group, causing physical injury to those who would defy him. This included, they said, forcing members to sleep for days at a time in a chicken coop on his property and suffer public beatings.
He also allegedly "counseled" married women by having sex with them in his home.
Prosecutors say Mullet, accompanied by his sons, sons-in-law, and nephews, hired a driver -- the Amish cannot operate motor vehicles and often travel by horse-drawn buggie -- to take them to the home of one of the church bishops who had spoken out against him.
They then allegedly knocked on the door, pulled the man out of his house and assaulted him and his son, who tried to intervene. Prosecutors say the group pulled at and cut their beard hair, then took photographs of the victims before fleeing the scene en route to another attack.
An updated 10-count indictment tendered in March alleges that the men and women -- also members of the same extended family -- had tried to hide or destroy evidence, including a pair of shears and a bag of hair. Mullet was also charged with lying to federal agents when he denied knowing of an October assault. He faces life in prison.
In October, Mullet told the AP that although he didn't tell his relatives to commit the crimes, he did not stop them from being carried out.
The Associated Press contributed to this report