By Kim Palmer
Cleveland (Reuters) - The trial of an Ohio Amish sect leader and 15 followers facing federal hate crimes charges for beard-cutting attacks on other Amish people could go to the jury on Wednesday after defense attorneys closed their case without calling a single witness.
Samuel Mullet Sr. and 15 members of the breakaway sect in the eastern Ohio community of Bergholtz are accused of planning or carrying out attacks on nine Amish men and women last fall. The 16 defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on all the charges.
Witnesses have testified the attacks were carried out in revenge for a dispute between Mullet and other Amish religious leaders after they accepted into their communities people who Mullet had shunned, or excommunicated.
Mullet was not present during the attacks, but prosecutors contend he encouraged and even orchestrated them. Witnesses have testified that followers told Mullet of the results of attacks and that he had discussed plans with his followers.
On Tuesday, prosecutors called Amish bishop Raymond Hershberger, one of the victims of the beard-cutting attacks, to wrap up more than two weeks of testimony that framed the attacks as stemming from religious disagreements.
Hershberger was one of five Amish bishops who investigated the excommunication of eight families from Mullet's Bergholtz group in 2006 and voted to overturn those excommunications, which allowed other communities to accept the families.
Without that exception, a member or family shunned by one community would be shunned by all.
Hershberger identified himself in a photograph taken during his attack last October, and he testified Tuesday that he had not known that Mullet was angry with him.
"I never thought that it would come to something like this," Hershberger said.
Hershberger said he had not been sure at first whether he should contact police but relented.
"We were scared and we needed help," Hershberger said. "We didn't want to do any evil to the Bergholtz people but they need help. I feel they need help."
Amish women and married Amish men do not cut their hair or beards as religious symbols of living a righteous life. Victims testified in the trial to being held down by attackers and having their beards grabbed and cut down to the skin.
Defense attorneys have contended the attacks were motivated by family feuds or child custody disputes within the community and not religious differences. A religious motive would be one element in proving the assaults were also hate crimes.
On Tuesday, Elizabethtown College Professor Donald Kraybill, an expert on Amish life, said he considered Mullet's sect in Bergholtz a "lone ranger" group of 18 families.
"Many of the Bergholtz practice are out of the Amish world ... they don't seem very Amish to me," Kraybill said.
Different Amish communities may vary on some customs but not the basic core of their beliefs, Kraybill said.
Kraybill had testified on Monday that the one-time exception Amish leaders voted to Mullet's excommunication of families from his sect had caused "an earthquake in the Amish community."
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster denied a defense motion to dismiss the charges and told jurors the defendants had no obligation to put on a defense.
(Editing by David Bailey and Cynthia Osterman)