Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Amish imprisonments cruel, lawyers argue

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CINCINNATI, Ohio -- Attorneys for a group of Amish men and women found guilty of hate crimes for cutting the hair and beards of fellow members of their faith are arguing that the group's conviction, sentencing and imprisonment in separate facilities across the country violates their constitutional rights and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, according to recent court filings.

The filings in federal court in Akron, Ohio, seek the release of seven of 16 Amish convicted in September in the 2011 attacks that were meant to shame fellow Amish they believed were straying from strict religious interpretations.

Although six of the requests were denied by the trial judge, one is still pending, and the judge could at any time order any of them released as they await the outcome of their appeals, expected to be filed this summer. Defence attorneys may also appeal denials of the release requests to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

The Amish group's leader, Samuel Mullet Sr., was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while the rest of the group got sentences ranging from one to seven years.

The Amish have been sent to different prisons across the country, placing an overly harsh burden on their families who -- because of their religion -- cannot travel by plane and have to hire drivers for car travel, the group's attorneys argue.

For instance, in order for Mullet's wife to visit him and three sons convicted in the case, she'd have to travel to Oklahoma, Louisiana and two different prisons 260 kilometres apart in Minnesota.

The Amish "are being treated much more harshly than the typical federal prisoner, including those with much worse criminal histories and offence conduct," Mullet's attorney, Edward Bryan, wrote in a March 29 filing. "The manner in which their sentences are being carried out by the Bureau of Prisons is cruel and unusual."

In their response filed on Friday, prosecutors pointed out that Mullet has unsuccessfully argued to be released five times throughout the case, and cited comments from federal Judge Dan Polster that Mullet showed no remorse for the attacks and "enjoyed receiving prompt reports about the violent assaults, and even received a bag of hair as proof that one such assault was successful."

The prosecutors also said that as recently as Feb. 8, Polster noted "Mullet's dangerous hold" on his community and that Mullet had shown "a blatant disregard for the law."

They rejected that the Amish's placement in different prisons is cruel and unusual, and said moving him would be a waste of taxpayer money.

The prosecution's filing does not address other arguments being put forth by the defence that are far broader, largely uncharted territory in the courts and could eventually land in the U.S. Supreme Court, according to attorneys involved in the case and constitutional law professors contacted by The Associated Press.

Defence attorneys for the Amish are attacking the group's prosecution under the federal hate crime statute, passed in 2009. The statute stipulates that to constitute a federal violation, the crime has to involve crossing state lines or using "an instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce."

In this case, government prosecutors successfully argued that the scissors and hair clippers were an instrumentality of interstate commerce.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 A30

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