Former Bank Robber to Share Story of Becoming A Lawyer, Fighting for Criminal Justice Reform 10/17/18 10/21/18 10:18:21 PM
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Bank robber turned lawyer Shon Hopwood will speak at the Nebraska State Bar Association’s annual meeting in La Vista Thursday. (Courtesy Photo)
Former Bank Robber to Share Story of Becoming
A Lawyer, Fighting for Criminal Justice Reform
By Scott Stewart
The Daily Record
Shon Hopwood believes in second chances.
A five-time bank robber turned law professor, Hopwood has repeatedly defied the odds, with a combination of luck and talent, weaving a story of a so-called “punk” who turned his life around and now works to give others the same opportunity for redemption.
Hopwood will speak Thursday at a general session of the Nebraska State Bar Association’s annual meeting in La Vista. His remarks – “Rehabilitating the Character and Fitness Requirements to Practice Law” – will be made alongside Senior U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf, who sentenced Hopwood to more than 12 years in prison for the armed robbery of five banks in the late 1990s.
In his remarks, Hopwood plans to offer a simple argument: Character is not static, people change and the law should recognize that transformation. He also plans to state that, after distinguishing himself with his inmate-written briefs reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, he could have attended the Creighton University School of Law, but he ultimately ended up at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“I didn’t think that Nebraska would ever give me a law license to practice law there,” Hopwood said. “I am hoping to encourage Nebraska to rethink that.”
Hopwood is working with several law school students to try to get an American Bar Association rule change on the issue of former inmates becoming lawyers. He’s writing a Law Review article on that subject as well. Last year, he helped a woman successfully appeal to the Washington State Supreme Court with a nearly immediate decision to approve her character and fitness case. (That story, along with Hopwood’s, was told in the March 30 episode of National Public Radio’s Invisibilia podcast.)
“It was a struggle for me to get a law license, which doesn’t come as a big surprise,” Hopwood said. “I have watched a lot of friends of mine with felony convictions struggle to get their licenses as well in different jurisdictions.”
Discovering the Law
Hopwood grew up in David City, a Butler County community about a half hour southeast of Columbus, where he lived a good childhood. Then one day a buddy suggested that they rob a bank, and Hopwood agreed. He went on to rob four more banks, until the FBI eventually caught up with him in Omaha.
No one was physically hurt, Hopwood said, “but we sure did scare a lot of people.” He was sentenced at age 23 to 147 months in federal prison. Once he got to prison, he got a job at the prison law library.
“I knew nothing about the law,” Hopwood said. “I was just checking out books.”
Then came June 26, 2000. On that day, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey that found the Sixth Amendment prohibited judges from enhancing sentences for crimes beyond the maximum allowed by statute based on facts not decided by the jury.
“I, along with every federal prisoner in the country, wanted that case to apply to the sentencing guidelines, which would mean that they were unconstitutional and maybe I could get back and get a sentence reduction,” Hopwood said. “Suddenly, I had a lot of motivation to try to learn the law.”
Legal arguments immediately made sense to Hopwood, in a way that algebra problems or other subjects just didn’t quite click. He started with his own case, arguing he was sentenced based on guidelines for armed robbery despite pleading guilty to unarmed robbery.
Kopf, however, denied his appeal.
But Hopwood didn’t stop. He started researching other inmates’ cases, suggesting new strategies to their lawyers and writing briefs on their behalf. In 2002, he wrote a brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a case where he argued the police unconstitutionally questioned a suspect. The court ended up accepting the case, and eventually ruled 9-0 in the inmate’s favor.
Seth Waxman, a former United States solicitor general, told The New York Times that the brief was one of the best he had ever read. Waxman worked with Hopwood on the case, representing the inmate for free. Hopwood successfully petitioned
the U.S. Supreme Court again in 2005 for a separate case.
Hopwood ended up serving nearly 11 years before he was released to a halfway house in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Oct. 2, 2008. He was fully released from federal custody the next spring.
A Series of Breaks
A jailhouse lawyer with a rap sheet for armed robbery normally wouldn’t have a lot of job prospects.
But Hopwood’s unique experience with Supreme Court briefs helped him land a job at Cockle Legal Briefs, a commercial printing business in Omaha that specializes in proofreading briefs destined for the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts.
“That was my big break,” Hopwood said. “Some of the circumstances of my story are just incredible.”
While working at Cockle, Hopwood met a law professor in Michigan who relayed his story to The New York Times. A February 2010 story with the headline “A Mediocre Criminal, but an Unmatched Jailhouse Lawyer” propelled Hopwood’s career forward
in unexpected ways.
“Life hasn’t been the same ever since,” Hopwood said. “I ended up getting a book deal with Random House and ended up getting a full-ride scholarship to the University of Washington School of Law.”
After attending law school, Hopwood clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Then he worked as a teaching fellow at a clinic at Georgetown University, which hired him on as an associate professor of law. Last year, his story was featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes.
“My prison law class is pretty popular at the moment,” Hopwood said. “There are things I can talk about the prison system that most law professors can’t.”
A Inside Perspective
Serving time in a federal prison gave Hopwood a visceral understanding of the challenges faced by inmates who want an opportunity to turn their lives around.
“The great irony of the American criminal justice system is, many times, the longer someone spends in corrections, the less corrected they are when they get out,” Hopwood said. “You can’t pretend to rehabilitate people when we put them in really horrific environments where the ever-present threat of danger and violence is there.”
Most lawyers in the United States come from privilege, Hopwood said. They don’t understand a lot of issues faced by everyday
Americans, let alone those serving time in prison.
“Most of the people I saw in prison were redeemable,” he said. “There were a very small fraction of people that were what I would call a sociopath.”
Even with the media attention, the law license, the prestigious university affiliation, regular visits to the White House and Capitol Hill – it’s still hard to get people to listen, Hopwood said. But society needs to better understand how the criminal justice system is broken, he said, and formerly incarcerated lawyers can have an important role in that process.
“It’s hard to get policy change done without being a lawyer,” Hopwood said.
Hopwood hopes his visit to Nebraska is an opportunity to share his perspective and that some will join the effort to make reforms. He pointed to the pending American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit challenging Nebraska’s prison overcrowding
as an example of the need for change in the Cornhusker State.
“I still have a heart for people in Nebraska, and I think I’m more appreciative of Nebraska everyday living on the East Coast,” Hopwood said. “The people there are just very generous. And if anybody should get that we need to offer more second chances for people coming out of prison, I think that this would be something that resonates with folks in Nebraska. It’s in everybody’s best interest.”
Beyond the moral arguments, Hopwood said giving former inmates a second chance lowers the risk of them offending again. Prison is “America’s biggest welfare program,” he said, and many families connected to inmates end up on public assistance, too.
“It’s really expensive to put people in prison, and it’s not very effective,”
Hopwood said. “We can’t continue to incarcerate our way out of social problems.”
Revisiting His Past
Hopwood said in an interview last week that he hadn’t given a lot of thought to returning to Nebraska, partly because he’s built a collegial relationship with the judge who once sentence him to prison.
“Shortly after he found out I got a clerkship on the D.C. Circuit, he wrote a nice blog post,” Hopwood said of Kopf. “When I have needed things from him, he has been very good about getting it.”
Hopwood visited with Kopf a few years ago at an event at the Nebraska College of Law, which was the first time they saw each other since the sentencing. Kopf gave him a briefcase that a former prisoner had given him, which Hopwood said sits in his office to this day.
Last spring, they did an event together in the Kansas City area where Kopf interviewed Hopwood. The discussion was titled “A Conversation Amongst Friends” – “which I thought was a really cool title given our history,” Hopwood said.
Kopf, for his part, wrote in a blog in 2013 that Hopwood’s case shows that gut instinct isn’t infallible.
“When I sent him to prison, I would have bet the farm and all the animals that Hopwood would fail miserably as a productive citizen when he finally got out of prison,” Kopf wrote. “My gut told me that Hopwood was a punk – all mouth, and very little else. My viscera was wrong.”
Hopwood said: “He didn’t think I was telling the truth when I said I was going to turn my life around.”
But now, with the benefit of hindsight and a long list of accomplishments,
Hopwood’s credibility is no longer in question, and he’s looking forward to returning to a community that – unknowingly – helped launch him into the upper echelons of the legal profession.
“I haven’t been back in Nebraska for a long time,” he said.