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Former Bank Robber and Author Shon Hopwood Recounts Supreme Court Battle Waged Inside U.S. Prison

October 26, 2012

In a packed lecture hall, students and faculty gathered to hear Shon Hopwood, author of “Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption,” trace his trajectory from robbing banks to serving a 12-year federal prison sentence to becoming a Supreme Court litigator.

With humor and humility, Hopwood explained how his legal career began while he worked in a prison law library, immersing himself in federal cases and briefs. “I would take the Federal Reporter home – by home I mean to my cell – and read it like a novel, front to back.” Hopwood said.

He encountered hundreds of cases where a prisoner’s sentence did not seem to fit the crime, primarily, Hopwood said, because of ineffective assistance of counsel. Thus, Hopwood wrote and submitted petitions to various courts for resentencing, on his own behalf and on the behalf of his fellow inmates.

In one instance, Hopwood felt fellow inmate John Fellers received a 12-year sentence that was undeservedly harsh. Hopwood submitted a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Fellers’ case, and, incredibly, the justices accepted his petition from among 7,000 they received that year.

Hopwood also described how, in another stroke of luck, revered U.S. Supreme Court litigator Seth Waxman took the case but asked the jailhouse advocate to remain involved. “They referred to me as ‘in-house’ counsel, as in, ‘in the big house,’” Hopwood joked. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in Fellers’ favor and reduced his sentence.

Throughout Hopwood’s imprisonment, the hope that he could accomplish something motivated him. Released from prison after serving most of his sentence, the 37-year-old is now a husband, the father of two children and a student at the University of Washington School of Law.

Based on his personal experience and legal studies, Hopwood has developed a keen interest in sentencing reform. Observing that the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation and that federal sentencing guidelines lead to stiff penalties for relatively minor crimes, Hopwood said younger prisoners should be considered for resentencing, based on merit. Such reforms could provide incentives for prisoners to better themselves while in prison, through education or otherwise, he said.

The event was co-sponsored by the school's American Constitution Society and Federalist Society with help from Professor Lisa McElroy.