Although serving 10 years in federal prison, Shon Hopwood is a second year law student with a full-ride Gates Public Service Law scholarship. Photo by Sang Cho
At 21 years old, with no job and a drug addiction, Shon Hopwood, fueled by desperation, went on a bank-robbing spree across his home state of Nebraska.
Five bank robberies later, Hopwood was caught. He was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison. But his story didn’t end there.
During his sentence, Hopwood took a job in the law library in prison, sparking his interest in the subject. After taking some law classes, he began giving law advice to fellow prisoners. Eventually, one case made it to the Supreme Court.
Hopwood now studies law at the UW under a scholarship from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and recently published a memoir called “Law Man.”
Although Hopwood thinks his own sentence was deserved, he said he saw others serving unjust sentences. While in prison, he said he was inspired to help such prisoners reduce their sentences. Hopwood said he was basically operating a mini law firm in prison.
In 2001, Hopwood took on the case of a fellow prisoner indicted for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. After researching for a few months, he found that the prisoner’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and former Solicitor General Seth Waxman took on the case, enlisting Hopwood’s help.
“I was very fortunate that he was the one that took the case over,” Hopwood said. “He didn’t need my help. … But you would have never known that by how he treated me. They made me part of the team. They had a special nickname for me — they called me ‘In-house Counsel.’”
The Supreme Court voted 9-0 in favor of the case.
“That changed everything,” Hopwood said.
After completing his time in prison, Hopwood attended Bellevue University in Nebraska and finished his bachelor’s degree. Thereafter, he began applying to law schools.
“Prior to prison, I never had any inkling that anything academic would be interesting,” Hopwood said. “If you talk to people that knew me before I went to prison, they would never in a million years guess that I would enjoy the law or studying.”
Currently in his second year at the University of Washington, Hopwood is admired by both his professors and his peers.
“He has an extraordinary story,” said Michele Storms, assistant dean for Public Service and executive director of the W.H. Gates Public Service Law Program. “Beyond being someone who did something terrible and serving his time, what you find in his story is that commitment to public service that we’re looking for. He began to serve other prisoners while he was a prisoner. He really helped quite a lot of people. And then when he left, he continued his work.”
After a year of being in the program, his resolve has only grown stronger, Storms said.
“Shon has grown into a fantastic law student,” assistant professor Elizabeth Porter said. “One of the things that makes Shon a terrific law student is that he doesn’t take his education for granted in any way. As a result, he has learned a tremendous amount. In particular, he’s developed his oral advocacy skills, which he wasn’t able to do in prison.”
Hopwood is unsure of which route he will take with his legal career, but he hopes to represent those who cannot afford a good attorney. Upset with the current system and trends of mass incarceration, he wants to work on reforms that will create a more effective and just system.
“I’m going to work on sentencing reform issues — in federal sentencing specifically — regardless of where I go work,” Hopwood said.
However, Hopwood realizes he might not be able to make it through the character and fitness test for the bar exam because of his felony.
“I am hopeful in one aspect, that when that time comes, it will have been almost 20 years since my crimes,” Hopwood said. “I’d hope that people would see that at 37, I am not the same person I was at 21.”
Reach reporter Ann Huynh at email@example.com. Twitter: @AnnThuy
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