Shon Hopwood’s Remarkable Journey From Federal Inmate To Georgetown Law Professor

Shon Hopwood knows all about second chances.

Shon had an unremarkable but happy childhood in a town of around 2,500 people in Nebraska, and he was a friendly and well-liked boy. Completely uninterested in school, Shon was best known for his skills on the basketball court. His dad managed a cattle-feed yard, and his parents helped found a church.

He lost his college athletic scholarship because he didn’t go to class, then spent two years in the United States Navy. From that moment on his life went steadily downhill: he moved back to Nebraska, was depressed, and started drinking and doing drugs. He lived in his parents’ basement and worked 12-hour shifts shoveling manure on a cattle farm.

Then, while in a bar with his best friend, it was suggested they rob a bank together. So, in August 1997, Shon Hopwood walked into a bank and pulled a rifle from his coveralls. After locking terrified customers and tellers in a vault, he and his friend left the scene with $50,000 in stolen money.

They both knew that what they had done was terribly, terribly wrong, and even though Hopwood said his friend suggested sending the money back with a note, he went on to rob four more banks.

The Washington Post reported that Shon Hopwood is a totally different man today: the former federal inmate has completely turned his life around and will be joining the faculty at Georgetown University Law Center in DC.

In the past 20 years, Shon Hopwood has robbed banks in Nebraska, spent 11 years in federal prison, twice written successful legal petitions for fellow inmates, earned undergraduate and law degrees, written a book, and got married and started a family. And what started out as a rather unremarkable life has gone full circle for Shon Hopwood and become a remarkable one, because he’s now been offered a job as a tenure-track faculty member at the Georgetown University Law Center.

Shon put his prison time to good use by studying law. He was able to see the law from a different perspective, in ways that allowed him to see things other lawyers overlooked. He began to understand the impact of sentencing and the rapid growth of incarceration in the United States.

The United States has five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners, and after five years a whopping three-quarters of released prisoners are back in custody. This is what he wants to change.

“It’s one of the big social-justice issues of our time. Between prison, jail, home confinement, probation, parole, combined it’s about 10 million people. It’s a big number.”

Hopwood was just 23-years-old at the time of his sentencing, and remembering the violent bank robberies in Nebraska, Judge Richard Kopf thought he was just a punk. Hopwood told the judge he planned on turning his life around, and Kopf replied in a disdainful tone: “I guess we’ll see in about 13 years.”

Hopwood very quickly realized that working in the prison law library was a good (and safe) idea, but at the beginning, he just checked the books out. Then, in the summer of 2000, he noticed a particular Supreme Court decision.

“Things that can increase your sentence need to be proven to a jury, or you need to plead guilty to them.”

In his case, he had pleaded guilty to unarmed robbery but had been sentenced based on guidelines for armed robbery. Yes, it was a technicality, but it’s at that moment Shon started dreaming of an early prison release. And he had a good reason because he had started a written friendship with a girl from his hometown that he wanted to pursue.

He conducted research for two months, then mailed off a brief: unfortunately, he’d filed it in the wrong court, and when it was redirected it was denied by Kopf, who said the new decision did not apply retroactively in his case.

Disappointed but undeterred, Hopwood realized that trying to work out a solution to a legal puzzle was the very first academic thing that he’d ever enjoyed, plus, it seemed easy. So, he started sending memos suggesting strategies to other inmates’ lawyers, and before he knew it he was writing briefs.

And he found many mistakes – typically from overworked public defenders. For example, a young man had been labeled a career offender and sentenced to more than 16 years prison for possessing a small amount of crack cocaine. Using Hopwood’s expertise, his sentence was reduced by more than 10 years.

His third brief was for a friend whose appeal had been denied, so Hopwood spent months studying habeas petitions: he soon determined that, instead of using the Fifth Amendment, there was a better way of framing an argument using the Sixth Amendment. He typed out a petition for certiorari and posted it. It was months later that he was shown a newspaper where the Supreme Court had accepted a petition – his petition – from a federal prisoner.

Seth Waxman is former solicitor general of the United States. He said the odds of that happening are possibly 1 in 10,000, and he agreed to argue the case for free. He was amazed when he read Hopwood’s petition.

“It was incredibly good. It really identified, in sort of a crystalline form, the questions presented. It explained the conflict, it explained the importance.”

More importantly, he really wanted to talk to the convicted bank robber who had the ability to write such a document, and so a friendship began that would eventually change the course of Shon Hopwood’s life.

Hopwood started devouring legal textbooks; he took college classes and paralegal studies, all the while churning out work for other inmates using new sentencing guidelines.

“I was running a law firm in prison.”

More than anything, he enjoyed seeing people leaving the prison and heading for home. He was now totally convinced that sentences beyond five years made no sense for any but dangerous criminals, and he was upset by the disparity in sentences. He believed that prison hardened people and cut off their chances for turning their lives around.

At 33-years-old, Shon Hopwood walked out of prison, very unsure of what life held for him. He knew that people would not be lining up to hire a felon. He had no money, but he wanted to get married and go to college.

It was while he was working at a car wash that fate smiled on him. After receiving reassurances from Seth Waxman, a family-run legal printing business in Omaha agreed to hire Hopwood to help with their Supreme Court briefs.

An article on his life in the New York Times invited a book deal and many invitations to speak, but given his résumé, it was still very difficult getting into law school. Then he was granted a full scholarship by the University of Washington, and so, with one child at home and another on the way, Shon Hopwood went to university.

Even though he studied hard, he wondered if at the end of the day he would be granted a law license, or would he be rejected because of his criminal record? After a long hearing, the vote was unanimous, and after passing the bar exam in April 2015, Hopwood was sworn in as a lawyer by the DC circuit judge who had chosen him for a prestigious clerkship.

Just over a year ago Shon joined Georgetown on a teaching fellowship, working with students on cases in the appellate clinic.

The law school’s dean, William Treanor, said that Shon “understands the problems of incarceration in a way that somebody who just studies them as an academic is not able to get.”

Steven Goldblatt is Director of Appellate Litigation. He said that Shon sees issues and strategies that others don’t. He added that many colleagues were impressed with Hopwood’s writing about the rule of lenity, a law which was designed to protect citizens from being caught in vague laws. Hopwood argued that more precision must be taken when drafting laws that remove a person’s liberty.

Goldblatt said this is not a theoretical issue – it’s fundamental.

“It symbolizes what Shon is all about. Why wasn’t there more written about it? D*mned if I know.”

Now 41-years-old, Shon is still haunted by guilt and regret for his crimes, but he is an optimist and has accepted that the only thing he can change is the future. All he wants to do now is help people, whether he does that by giving students a real understanding of the impact of the law, by serving as a reminder that anyone can turn their life around, or even by influencing the criminal justice system.

And now, as he prepares to start his new role at Georgetown on July 1 as an Associate Professor of Law, Shon Hopwood still doesn’t feel like he’s made it.

“I’ll feel that way when the federal government passes a bill that gets rid of federal mandatory sentences. That will be the moment for me.”

NBC Washington reported that Shon Hopwood was shocked by a job offer to teach at Georgetown Law.

“I never thought I would go to law school. I never thought I would become a licensed attorney.”

Now, Hopwood realizes that it was when he was working in the prison’s law library that he realized he had found his calling.

“When I started winning cases for other prisoners while I was still inside prison, I found that I really enjoyed helping other people with their legal problems, especially people who can’t afford a good lawyer.”

On his release from prison, he was encouraged to attend law school, which he did. In Seattle, he attended the University of Washington School of Law, he clerked for a federal judge, and successfully published a book titled Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases and Finding Redemption.

Paul Rothstein said that Georgetown professors initially had their doubts about Hopwood.

“I think before we met him, some of the people here thought, ‘Wow. This is a person with a record. That raises some flags.'”

However, today there are no questions.

“This guy is really going to make a contribution to our students and really bring a perspective here that no one else can.”

Shon Hopwood has experienced both sides of the law, and now he aims to teach about criminal procedure and prisoners’ rights. His aim is to educate both students and the community about prison reform.

“I hope that my job here will inspire people that do not believe a second chance is possible. You can never really overcome a felony conviction, but you can make that impact on your life a lot less, the more education you receive.”

[Featured Image by zapomicron/Shutterstock]