By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A jury was selected Monday in Cleveland in the hate-crime trial of 16 members of an Ohio Amish splinter group charged in beard- and hair-cutting attacks on other Amish people last fall.
The 16 men and women, most of them related, are charged in three separate attacks on nine people, including the parents of some of the suspects. The series of crimes rocked the normally quiet, pacifist Amish community in Jefferson County in southeast Ohio.
Federal prosecutors say the hair-cutting attacks were meant to humiliate the victims because the beard is a symbol of a man's identity among the Amish, and women in the community do not cut their hair for biblical reasons.
Prosecutors allege that the attacks were revenge for a dispute between Samuel Mullet Sr. and other Amish bishops after those bishops argued against the excommunication of eight families from Mullet's breakaway group.
Authorities accused Mullet, 66, of being the ringleader of the assaults, although they say he was not present during any of them. Authorities said conversations recorded in jail before federal charges were brought revealed that he was planning more attacks.
Mullet and the others face 10 counts, including obstruction, conspiracy and a federal hate crime, "for willfully causing bodily injury because of actual and perceived religion."
Eighty-one prospective jurors were called to the court for the first day of the trial, and after eight hours 12 jurors and four alternates were selected.
The 10 male defendants all appeared in court wearing beards, and white shirts, with pants held up by suspenders, while the six female defendants wore white bonnets with green tops and dark-colored skirts.
Defense attorneys reminded prospective jurors that despite their similar appearances, each defendant faces his or her own set of charges.
"There are 16 different trials going on... " said Nathan Ray, attorney for Emanuel Schrock. "Just because they dress alike doesn't mean they act in conformity."
Two defendants, Mullet and Lester Miller, have filed motions arguing that the hate crime statute, which carries a possible life sentence, does not apply to intra-religious disputes and is a violation of the separation of powers.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster ruled that prosecutors are not permitted to refer to Mullet's community using terms that may be derogatory, like "cult" or "sect," but they will be able to present evidence of Mullet's sexual "counseling" of female members of his group even though he has not been charged with a sex crime.
The trial, which is expected to last three to four weeks, will continue Tuesday.
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)
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