By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - An Ohio Amish sect leader charged with federal hate crimes played a central role at beard-cutting attacks by his followers that "religiously degraded" other Amish people, even though he was not present during the attacks, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Jurors will begin deliberating on Thursday whether Samuel Mullet Sr. and 15 of his followers are guilty of federal hate crimes for the attacks on nine Amish men and women last fall.
All 16 were charged with conspiracy to commit a hate crime, and some face charges of lying to police or withholding evidence. They face up to life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors have argued the attacks were motivated by religious disputes between Mullet and leaders of other Amish groups.
Mullet was not present at any of the attacks, but prosecutors contend he orchestrated them.
The defendants attacked the victims "in the most offensive way, in a way that religiously degraded them," U.S. Attorney Kristy Parker told jurors.
Amish women and married Amish men do not cut their hair or beards because they are considered sacred symbols of righteousness.
The defendants openly discussed the attacks before and after they happened, and Mullet's followers brought him hair they cut as trophies and took pictures so he could see what the victims looked like after the attacks, Parker said.
"He is different from everyone else. He didn't get any blood or hair on himself, but none of the terror would have happened without him," Parker said.
Defense attorneys argued that the attacks were the result of family or financial disputes and not religious differences and should not be considered hate crimes.
Mullet's attorney, Ed Bryan, said prosecutors presented a "pretty little package" that read like a movie script.
"This isn't a grand conspiracy," Bryan said. "They are trying to hold him accountable for crimes he didn't commit."
(Editing by David Bailey)