CLEVELAND, Aug. 27 (UPI) -- A federal judge in Cleveland Monday questioned prospective jurors for the hate crime trial of 16 Amish defendants accused of cutting the hair of fellow Amish.
Jury selection for the estimated three-week trial before U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster could take two days, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported. Eighty-one prospective jurors were to be questioned.
The prospective jurors were asked by the judge about their knowledge of the case and whether they knew any of the defendants or their attorneys. He also asked them if they had opinions about whether the government has the right to file criminal charges based on religion, the newspaper said.
Samuel Mullet, 66, along with 15 of his male and female followers in Jefferson County, are accused of cutting the beards and hair in five attacks from September to November. All 16 have pleaded not guilty to hate crime charges, ABC News reported.
Evidence in the trial will include locks of hair and horse mane shears, officials said.
Prosecutors allege Mullet and his followers orchestrated the attacks out of revenge after a group of Amish bishops refused to accept his decision to excommunicate eight families who left his community because they disagreed with his leadership.
The cutting of the beards and hair is considered a humiliation within the Amish religion worse than being beaten, one of the victims said.
Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and Amish expert, is expected to testify for the prosecution.
"The beard for Amish men is a symbol of their adult manhood," he told National Public Radio. "So to cut their beard is an assault on not only their personal identity but also on their religious identity and their religious faith."
Mullet also allegedly forced women to have sex with him to learn how to better please their husbands, and forced some members to sleep in chicken coops as a form of discipline, prosecutors said.
The 16 defendants face a possible life sentence in prison if convicted under the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the New York Daily News reported.