From Prison to Law School: How Former Felon Shon Hopwood Dedicated His Life to Law

Matthew Rudow

 

Like most second-year law students, Shon Hopwood will be spending most of the winter huddled over casebooks, frantically typing notes in lecture halls, and scrambling to balance academic, family, and extracurricular obligations. This juggling act may not be easy, but he is used to hard times. Less than five years ago, Shon Hopwood was an inmate in FCI Pekin, a federal prison in Illinois, serving a sentence for armed bank robbery.

 

Today, Hopwood is a happily married father of two. He re-connected with a high school acquaintance named Annie, who provided emotional support during his toughest days behind bars. For financial support, Hopwood has received one of the few, coveted full scholarships awarded to University of Washington students through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the name of the Microsoft titan’s father, a law school alumnus. Hopwood’s remarkable story has been catalogued in the New York Times and Harper’s, and is now the subject of the book Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption, which Hopwood co-wrote with Dennis Burke.

 

While many of his classmates may experience a taste of the law from a summer internship in a prestigious law firm or networking with attorneys, Hopwood has prepared several briefs for the Supreme Court, helped reduce the sentences of inmates, and counts among his friends such high-powered national figures as former Solicitor General Seth Waxman. Hopwood’s experience helping win Supreme Court cases has given him firsthand legal experience beyond the imagination of even the most accomplished attorneys.

 

As he recounts in Law Man, Hopwood grew up in a loving but strict Nebraska home. With his tall frame, he excelled at basketball and won a scholarship to a small Nebraska college. His basketball skills proved merely average at the college level, and he was not interested in his studies. This led to “something similar to clinical depression” and Hopwood washed out of school in his first year, then enlisted in the Navy. Hopwood did well in the Armed Forces, even winning a promotion, but also ran with a hard crowd that drank too much. He was discharged after two years and returned home. He grappled with his own sense of failure, considered re-enlisting in the Navy, and continued partying. Through a combination of poor bookkeeping and desperation, Hopwood passed several bad checks and was facing criminal charges. His father helped him financially but insisted his son return to the Armed Forces. Due to the pending court case the Navy turned him away.

 

Hopwood had been spending time with one of his closest friends, Tom, who was also suffering through a rough patch. The two began strategizing a dramatic way out of their predicament: robbing banks. The pair first identified a target, Petersburg State Bank in Nebraska. After stashing a stolen car at a nearby farm, the pair spent one night in a hotel.  The next morning, they sat on a hill overlooking the quiet, peaceful town. When Tom reconsidered and wondered aloud about just going home, Hopwood gave him to option of leaving him to go it alone. Without the money, Hopwood felt certain he would go to jail for the check-passing charge. With the money, he might have the chance to afford an attorney. “With or without you, I’m doing it,” he declared. Tom insisted on helping his friend.

 

 

Having passed on the last chance to turn back, the pair began their lives as bank robbers. Dressed as a construction worker, including a mask to cover his nose and mouth, Hopwood walked in the front door, dropped the toolbox he had been carrying as part of his disguise, reached into his coveralls, pulled out a rifle and announced “This .. is .. a .. robbery!”

 

Met with disbelieving stares, he yelled for everyone to get down. Tom covered the door, and after emptying the tills down to the change, the pair locked the witnesses in the vault, hopped in their getaway car, and sped to a gravel road. The pair then abandoned the stolen vehicle and took off in a grain truck. Monitoring a police scanner on an earpiece, Hopwood sat in the truck’s bed and listened as local cops informed each other they had arrested 18-year-old twins for the crime. The twins were later released, but had unwittingly provided a diversion for the real perpetrators. Hopwood and Tom split $50,000 from the robbery.

 

Tom put his share to good use, eventually going back to college and, ironically enough for a bank robber, majoring in criminal justice. Hopwood, meanwhile, found other partners and pulled off several additional robberies. At the height of his criminal career, Hopwood had a stash of over $130,000, making him “Midwest rich.”

 

Even as he counted his money in his hideout on his friend’s mother’s property on an Indian reservation, Hopwood’s time was running out. The FBI had Hopwood’s palm print, had heard from numerous witnesses, and one of his cohorts was already in police custody on a separate charge. His life of crime ended abruptly when he was tackled in the lobby of a Doubletree hotel in Omaha.

 

Hopwood was sentenced to 12 years behind bars in Pekin. He soon experienced what he calls the “grinding routine of boredom.” For relief, Hopwood began working in the prison library, retrieving and reshelving books. He had a natural affinity for the work, and the job gave his life a renewed focus. He had ample opportunity to read between grabbing books for prisoners, and started familiarizing himself with the law. Working without access to the online resources that have made legal research unimaginably easier for law students, Hopwood began memorizing cases. Without the money to even pay for copies, he pieced together cases from, as he puts it, the “puzzle pieces floating around” in his mind.

 

 

This led to Hopwood’s unlikely involvement with the Supreme Court of the United States. Hopwood was developing a reputation for helping fellow prisoners as a “jailhouse lawyer.” As he recounts in his book, he was “helping others and enjoying it.” Eventually John Fellers, a friend of Hopwood’s, asked him to help petition the Supreme Court. Fellers persuaded Hopwood by hinting it might even help impress his high school crush Annie, who was intermittently in contact with Hopwood but drawing interest from free men as well.

 

In 2003, the Supreme Court accepted Hopwood’s petition for writ of certiorari (known as a “cert. petition”) asking for review of a lower-court ruling in Feller’s case. The court received thousands of petitions from prisoners and other indigents that year, and agreed to hear less than 10 of them. At that point, Seth Waxman agreed to take the case, but only if Hopwood stayed involved. “It was probably one of the best cert. petitions I have ever read,” Waxman said of Hopwood’s work. The Supreme Court unanimously agreed officers had crossed a line when, after Fellers had been indicted by a grand jury, they asked him questions in his home after entering to arrest him, and the information he provided was later used against him. Fellers eventually had several years shaved off his sentence.

 

When Hopwood’s release date finally arrived in the fall of 2008, he had served 10 years of his 12-year sentence. He moved to a halfway house, where his movement and activities would be strictly controlled for a few months, and any indiscretion would land him back in prison. Hopwood’s combination of a criminal record and the Great Recession left few job options on the table, but his unique experience made him an excellent fit at Cockle Printing in Omaha. One of the few companies to specialize in printing Supreme Court briefs, Cockle’s staff noticed Seth Waxman’s name on Hopwood’s resume and gave Shon a shot.

 

As he flourished at Cockle, Hopwood’s improbable journey from Prisoner #15632-047 was nearly complete. He had the confidence to consider law school, but faced the same daunting financial picture as many law school applicants. Hopwood applied for the William H. Gates Public Service Law Program, he was selected, and began school in 2011.

 

Recounting his story today, Hopwood sounds like a man who has grappled with his past and come to terms with it, and doesn’t want to dwell on its sensationalism. Hopwood feels bank robbing has been “romanticized.” He recalls speaking in front of a group of students at Harvard, and the best and brightest students in the country only wanted to hear the lurid details of his crime. His real passion now is reforming the system. “My sentence was fair,” he says, which he attributes to having a good prosecutor. Unfortunately, many other offenders aren’t so lucky, he feels.  Due to society’s “short-sighted thinking” he says, prisoners often don’t get the help they need, either on the outside or behind bars.

 

Hopwood believes change must be comprehensive. "We incarcerate too many people for too long," he says.

 

"Prison is almost like the default," he argues, and alternatives to incarceration are short-changed. Hopwood is opposed to mandatory minimum sentences, and he bemoans the "short-sided thinking" that robs support from programs that might give prisoners the skills to contribute after their release. He points to the success of programs like the Post-Prison Education Project, which result in much lower rates of recidivism. "The taxpayer reaps the rewards of that," he says. Above all, Hopwood says society and prisoner alike will benefit from fighting the "feeling of hopelessness" that settles in all too easily behind bars.

 

Hopwood acknowledges change will be difficult. The prison industry has a strong lobby, he says, which further complicates the already sluggish federal reform process. "Reform will be on the state level" he says.

 

As a law student, Hopwood now has access to the legal resources that behind bars he could only dream of. “I love it,” says enthusiastically, though he also concedes he occasionally misses the physical nature of books.

 

Hopwood is juggling not only his speaking and book duties, but also his role as a dad to his two children, a daughter, Grace who is one, and a son, Mark, three. While he has a unique edge over many law students with his extensive legal research experience, Hopwood says between family, class, and media obligations he is never bored.

 

            In Law Man, Hopwood is very frank about struggling with his inner demons, such as his depression. The story is also permeated with his love for his wife. Hopwood discusses her struggles with anorexia, at one point requiring in-patient treatment and approaching life-threatening consequences. While his wife was nervous about the revelations in the book’s discussion of some things she is ashamed of, she was relieved to receive support from readers.

 

Readers have likewise been supportive of Hopwood since the book’s release, with a few exceptions. A small but steady vein of anger and resentment runs through the reaction to Hopwood’s press coverage. Similarly, while Hopwood says his classmates are aware if his background and have generally been supportive, he is aware of some resentment, including anonymous posts on websites discussing his story complaining about a convicted criminal winning such a valuable prize as a full scholarship to law school. Hopwood says the “barrage” of media attention may have contributed to some of the ill will, but any perception that he is profiting from his misdeeds is incorrect.

 

He says the book has not made his family rich, especially with his co-author and agent receiving a share of the profits. He tries his best to ignore any backlash and to maintain his juggling act of family, school, and media obligations.

 

Looking ahead to career plans, Hopwood says he has a range of interests in addition to criminal justice and defense. He is also interested in immigration and civil litigation, and in working with groups such as Public Citizen and the ACLU National Prison Project. He hopes to remain involved in both litigation and appellate work. Above all, Hopwood says he is driven to “help those who can’t usually afford it.”

 

Author Bio:

Matthew Rudow is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Comments

Incredible story about crime, its consequences, and hope of a future outside "The big house". Great book and hard to put down.

Email: 
dwayne@dabev.com

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