“A tale of redemption as improbable as any you’re likely to hear.” -Steve Kroft, CBS (60 minutes).
“The latest improbable twist in a remarkable life”. -Susan Svrluga (Washington Post)
In the beginning.
Shon was born into a Christian family in David City, Nebraska, United States. Although he was a bright kid, Shon was described in a CBS documentary as a
“cocky and stubborn kid who hated rules; a good athlete and miserable student who won a basketball scholarship to Midland University and partied his way out of it in one semester; drank himself through a two-year hitch in the Navy and added drugs to the mix when he returned to David City working in a feedlot.”
What do you think about robbing a bank?
Back to a life without any purpose in his home town, a friend asked Shon during an alcohol binge whether he would be interested in robbing a bank. Shon laughed off the silly question as something inspired by alcohol. But not long after that encounter, Shon and his friend began a spree of bank robberies in August of 1997.
We will see.
Shon was eventually caught, confessed, pleaded guilty and sentenced to 11 years despite the pleas from many families who stood behind him. He had just turned 23. When Shon said he would turn his life around during sentencing, the Judge cynically responded, “I guess we will see in about 13 years.”
In truth, Shon had no immediate or future plans on how he was going to turn his life around as he headed off to jail to begin his sentence.
From intimidation to an unusual engagement with books
In jail, Shon was assigned to work in the prison law Library. Considering his hatred for learning, it was an odd place to send him to. Commenting on the books in the law library, Shon said, “I hardly touched the books. They were thick, they were intimidating.”
One day, Shon heard of a judgment of the Supreme Court of the United States which he felt he could use to reduce his jail time. He decided to research the case. After two months of boring through lengthy law reports and sentencing guidelines, Shon put together a written appeal to the Judge who sentenced him demanding that his 11 years sentence be reduced in line with the new Supreme Court Judgment.
The appeal was denied on the ground that the judgment he cited was not retroactive and hence could not be applied to his case.
Though Shon did not achieve his objective, the research sparked something deep inside of him. As he went through more cases in the country’s law reports, he found mounting evidence of injustice in the laws on sentencing of offenders and mistakes often made by overworked public defenders who are frequently called upon to defend indigent criminals.
As he was having fun researching various cases, an inmate approached him to appeal a drug conviction to the US Supreme Court. Shon initially turned down the request believing that the case was too complex for him to handle. But when the inmate kept pestering him, he finally obliged and put together a petition.
The petition was so compelling that the Justices of the Court whose dockets are usually jammed with high profile constitutional cases and are therefore very picky about what cases to take on agreed to hear Shon’s petition. Indeed, for that year, 2003, 8000 petitions were filed to the Supreme Court. Of these, only 74 were accepted for hearing. Shon’s petition was one of them.
An accidental mentor steps in.
Seth Waxman, a prominent appellate lawyer and former solicitor general of the United States who argued that case before the Supreme Court Justices requested Shon to be formally part of the legal team. According to Waxman,
“I wanted him to be involved, because I was really curious. It seemed actually almost inconceivable that somebody with his level of education and his level of exposure to the life of the law could actually write a much better than average cert petition.”
Not only did the Justices take the case, they decided unanimously to reduce the sentence of the inmate in question by four years! After the case, Mr Waxman became Shon’s mentor.
And away he flew with something new.
With his Supreme Court petition victory, Shon was on the roll. He filed petition after petition and kept winning. According to Shon,
“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”.
While still in prison, Shon enrolled for an undergraduate program, hoping that someday he could become lawyer. But the obstacles ahead of him were seemingly insurmountable. Many lawyers told him that as a convicted felon he may not be able to attend law school and even if he did, he would never get licensed by any state bar association to practice.
But three years after leaving prison, Shon completed his degree and against all odds, the University of Washington law school offered him admission while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave him a full scholarship.
On completing law school in 2015 and with strong recommendation from his Waxman, Shon landed a prestigious clerkship job with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the second most important court in the United States.
On April 6, 2017, 8 years after leaving prison, Shon Hopwood accepted an offer for a full-time law professor at George Washington University in Washington DC.
A number of professors at the University said they initially had doubts about the offer made to Shon.
One of them said,
“I think before we met him, some of the people here thought, ‘Wow. This person with a record. This raises some red flags. There are no longer any questions. This guy is really going to make a contribution to our students and really bring a perspective here that no one else can.”