No Law Against Mercy: Jailed for Sheltering a Child from the State
by Barbara Lyn Lapp and Rachel B. Lapp

In 1993, 15-year-old Billy Stefan escaped from state custody, where he had been isolated, beaten, and drugged to protect him from his father who the NY Social Services bureaucracy thought was guilty of child abuse. He sought refuge at the Lapp family farm because he and his family knew that Barbara Lapp was a children's rights advocate. The Lapp family protected the boy and were arrested nd sent to jail when they refused to turn the boy over to the police. This book tells the story in detail.

Most of the book consists of excerpts from the diaries that Barbara and Rachel Lapp wrote while they we in jail.

If Jacob Lapp or his son-in-law Joe Torres had written this book, it might not be so effective. When men protest it often seems unmanly. Other men might regard them as whiners and might feel little sympathy for them.

Men feel more protective toward women than toward other men. It is easier for us to think of Barbara and Rachel Lapp as naive innocents. We can easily imagine these young women believing in Bible stories and being overcome by tender feelings for the welfare of children. Women do not need an excuse to be kind to children. It would be unchivalrous for men to criticize them for their simple faith and their failure to consider the long-range consequences of their actions. It is inhuman to punish them for being maternal.

When they explain their actions with words such as kindness, mercy, and love, I can easily believe they are speaking from their hearts. When they argue from legal principles with words such as habeas corpus, the U.S. Constitution, ... , I attribute it to their father's influence.

Barbara and Rachel Lapp come across as both spontaneously (genuinely) good and consciously confrontational. They deliberately put themselves in situations where they were likely to draw the attention of government agents who are easily provoked. In the major confrontations in this story the Lapps (especially Barbara) took steps to ensure the confrontations took place in public and there were reporters and TV cameras on hand.

The Lapps were not simply trying to show mercy to a boy who was a victim of the child welfare agencies. The Lapps had an agenda that included bringing public attention to systematic government criminality. To accomplish this part of their agenda it was more efficacious for them to be unjustly imprisoned than to be quickly acquitted and freed. I believe this consideration helps to explain their failure to cooperate with government officials and their failure to put up a successful legal defense.

There are several other possible explanations for their actions. In addition to their desire to protect .... and to publicize the injustice of the legal system, the Lapps were motivated by a combination of other factors. One of these factors is their belief in honesty, which goes so far as to not permit them to lie even to government officials. Another factor is their belief in the necessity to show mercy to strangers, which is so strong that it sometimes requires sacrifices by their whole family, including the youngsters. A less charitable explanation is pure stubbornness, which caused one or another of them to resist being screened for TB, refuse to be fingerprinted, and refuse to change into prison clothes. Eventually, they decided that such resistance was not required by their consciences and they submitted to these indignities.

The reason they expressed for their failure to cooperate and to adequately defend themselves in court could be interpreted as rationalizations that allowed them to hide some of their other motives from the public and from themselves.

The Lapps had every right to do what they did. All the real crimes in this story were committed by sheriffs, district attorneys, child welfare agency staff members, judges, and correction officers. Nonetheless, the public reasons the Lapps gave for not offering a better legal defence and for allowing themselves to suffer unjust imprisonment do not make sense to me. Their reasoning, as I understand it is:

  1. The legal system failed to respect their Constitutional rights.
  2. Therefore, the legal system is illegitimate and does not have legal jurisdiction over them.
  3. To cooperate with the legal system would be equivalent to saying that the system has legitimate jurisdiction over them, which would be a lie.
  4. It is wrong to lie.
  5. Therefore, they are morally obligated to not cooperate with the legal proceedings and to suffer the consequences.
I agree with the Lapps that the legal system violated their rights before, during, and after their trials. I agree that the legal system is not morally legitimate. But I disagree with the Lapps that to cooperate with the legal system implies that the system is legitimate, consequently, I disagree with the rest of their reasoning.

A stronger libertarian argument for not cooperating with the procedures of the court is that the court procedures involve threatening to imprison citizens who refuse to serve on the jury and threatening to imprison or otherwise assault witnesses who refuse to appear in court or to answer questions when so ordered by the trial judge.

The Lapps did not call any witnesses, so they were not accomplices with the court in the crime of subpoenaing witnesses. Fortunately, the Lapp's request for a 12-person jury was denied, so the Lapps were not responsible for any actual threats being made to potential jurors, although the Lapps would apparently have condoned such threats on Constitutional grounds.

Although the Lapps are good and their captors are evil, I have more sympathy for some of the other inmates described in this book. Some of the prisoners such as the ones charged with possession of marijuana were no more guilty of real crimes than the Lapps, but they had less opportunity to avoid being jailed for what they did, so in a sense they were in jail less voluntarily than the Lapps. Furthermore, some of the inmates were more economically and intellectually disadvantaged than the Lapps. Some could hardly speak English. Most lacked the support of a large family and sympathetic friends and neighbors. They did not receive lots of comforting mail. They did not have friends picketing the jail, distributing leaflets, and writing newspaper stories on their behalf. They did not have opportunities to give press conferences. They were not honored and respected by strangers for doing what got them in trouble. They were relatively helpless victims of the cruel and evil system of American justice. Barbara Lyn Lapp recognized this;

"All are worse off than usŁnot having the comfort of a loving family, and many anxieties besides bars." (387)
Occasionally the Lapp women refer to events as signs from above or God's will, but these delusions do no harm and seem to strengthen their resolve.

This book illustrates more than the injustice done in the Lapp case. It illustrates the systematic injustice of the American legal system and it shows that many of those who are locked in jail are not as cruel and detrimental to society as their jailors.

"'Do you follow all orders?'
'Yes.'
'Even if they're bad?'
'Yep. Good or bad, I follow them all.'
'That's pretty base. Even as a child I was taught to discern between good and bad, and choose the good,' I said." (72)

"The decay in human decency hurts more deeply than the bars today." (379)

No Law Against Mercy: Jailed for Sheltering a Child From the State by Barbara Lyn Lapp and Rachel B. Lapp.
Copyright 1997
Published by Hand of Hope Press
Post Office Box 101
Cassadaga, New York 14718
ISBN 0-9653547-0-9

Year Read: 1999


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