The Two-Way
1:30 pm
Thu September 5, 2013

The Incredible Case Of The Bank Robber Who's Now A Law Clerk

Originally published on Sat October 26, 2013 1:03 pm

"I had no prior history with the law other than breaking it."

"I thought, 'this kid is a punk.' "

All Things Considered on Thursday catches up with the remarkable story of Shon Hopwood, who has gone from being a 23-year-old bank robber sentenced to spend about a decade in prison to become a 38-year-old father who's soon to be clerking for a judge on "the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit."

The first of those two quotes at the top of this post is from Hopwood himself.

The second is from federal Judge Richard Kopf, the man who sent Hopwood to prison. He's stunned by Hopwood's transformation and concedes that "my gut told me that [he] was a punk — all mouth, and very little else. My viscera was wrong." In Kopf's own opinion, "Hopwood proves that my sentencing instincts suck."

In a conversation the two men had with NPR's Melissa Block — the first time they've been interviewed together, though they have exchanged thoughts on Kopf's blog — Hopwood talks about how he changed during his time in prison. He went from being a drug addict and someone who "really had no purpose in life" to a jailhouse lawyer with an aptitude for searching case law and finding decisions that would help his fellow inmates.

As The New York Times reported in 2010, Hopwood:

"Transformed himself into something rare at the top levels of the American bar, and unheard of behind bars: an accomplished Supreme Court practitioner.

"He prepared his first petition for certiorari — a request that the Supreme Court hear a case — for a fellow inmate on a prison typewriter in 2002. Since Mr. Hopwood was not a lawyer, the only name on the brief was that of the other prisoner, John Fellers.

"The court received 7,209 petitions that year from prisoners and others too poor to pay the filing fee, and it agreed to hear just eight of them. One was Fellers v. United States."

The justices, in a 9-0 decision, agreed that police had "crossed constitutional lines in questioning Mr. Fellers, who had been convicted of a drug conspiracy," the Times wrote. "The case took some more turns in the lower courts, but in the end Mr. Fellers's sentence was reduced by four years."

Of his life before he went to prison, Hopwood admits he was "a very stupid, foolish and reckless kid." He and some accomplices stole about $200,000 during a series of bank robberies in Nebraska.

He holds no grudge against Kopf for the 13-year sentence he was given. "I couldn't back up what I said in 1999" about wanting to reform, Hopwood now says, "and the sentence the judge gave me was in accordance with the law at the time. ... I deserved to go to prison."

Hopwood — who was released from prison in 2008 and is set to graduate next year from the University of Washington's School of Law — believes now that sentencing most non-violent offenders such as him to more than 5 years or so in prison may do more harm than good. Convicts he knew with longer sentences, "after a couple years of being in prison, they just gave up hope."

Kopf agrees, saying that "5 years is plenty for most crimes, in my opinion."

Looking ahead, Hopwood knows that as he takes bar exams his criminal history will come up when it's time for states to decide if he should be allowed to practice law. "I'd like to think the things I've done since prison and the volunteer hours I've put in and the people who will go to bat for me will make a difference to [a] bar association," he says.

Kopf, meanwhile, sees "zero, zilch, nada" reasons for not allowing Hopwood to practice law. "If this young man doesn't get a law license, there's something wrong," the judge says.

Much more from Melissa's talk with Hopwood and Kopf is due on All Things Considered. We'll attach the as-broadcast conversation to the top of this post later. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

We'll also attach a link to an excerpt from a book Hopwood has written, Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases and Finding Redemption.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Now, a story about redemption, second chances and a remarkable self-transformation. We've brought together a convicted bank robber, and the judge who sentenced him.

SHON HOPWOOD: Good morning, Judge.

JUDGE RICHARD KOPF: Good morning, Shon. It's been 15 years since we last talked, or more.

HOPWOOD: I know. I was just thinking about that this morning.

KOPF: Yeah, it's very odd isn't it?

BLOCK: It's been 14 years, actually, since U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf sentenced Shon Hopwood to 12 years in federal prison for robbing banks in Nebraska. In prison, Hopwood started working in the law library. He found his passion and became an in-demand jailhouse lawyer.

What's astounding is that Shon Hopwood was able to do something exceedingly rare. He persuaded the Supreme Court to hear a case, based on a petition he pecked out on a prison typewriter for a fellow inmate. The chance of that happening for someone filing without an attorney? About one-tenth of 1 percent. And then, he did it again.

Long story short, after Shon Hopwood was released from prison, he was granted a full scholarship to the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. And he's just snagged one of the country's most prized law clerkships. Next year, he'll clerk on what's considered the country's second-most important court after the Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Well, this outcome has prompted Judge Kopf to say this, in a stunningly candid post on his blog: Hopwood proves that my sentencing instincts suck.

Judge Kopf joined me from Lincoln, Neb.; Shon Hopwood from Seattle. And our conversation starts with Hopwood. I asked him, why were you robbing banks?

HOPWOOD: Well, the first thing is, I was a very stupid, foolish and reckless kid. Well, I wasn't quite a kid - I was 21, 22 at the time. And I'd say the biggest thing was, I really had no purpose in life. You throw in some desperation and some drug and alcohol addiction, and it was a recipe for disaster. And that's kind of what led me down the wrong path.

BLOCK: Well, Shon, you ultimately pleaded guilty. And Judge Kopf, when he appeared before you for sentencing, Shon told you he thought he could turn his life around; thought he could change. Do you remember what you told him at that sentencing, back in '99?

KOPF: I do. I think I said something roughly like, well, we'll see in about 13 years if you mean what you say.

BLOCK: And what were you thinking, when you said that?

KOPF: I thought this kid was a punk, and the chances of him doing what he said he was going to do were about as likely as nothing.

BLOCK: Well, Shon, you went off to federal prison. How were you able to master the law from prison and ultimately, convince the Supreme Court to take your two cert petitions?

HOPWOOD: A lot of time and effort. I would spend - literally - days, months, years researching in legal books. For some reason, I had an aptitude for finding arguments. And I don't know why that is. I had no prior history with the law, other than breaking it. And, you know, at the time when I started in the law library, I could not have named a right in the Bill of Rights. It took a lot of hard work, and I found that I really enjoyed helping my fellow inmates.

BLOCK: How did you hear, Shon, that the Supreme Court had taken your first cert petition?

HOPWOOD: I was walking out to the recreation yard one morning to go lift weights, and one of my friends came running and screaming out of the housing unit. And this kind of tells you about federal prison. The first thing I thought was: I must have said something wrong to him yesterday, and he's coming to fight. But you don't normally go to fight carrying a newspaper in your hand. And what he had was a copy of the USA Today. And it said that the court had granted John Feller's case, and how unlikely that was, given that he had filed pro se - without an attorney.

BLOCK: John Feller was your fellow inmate, for whom you had written the petition.

HOPWOOD: Yeah.

BLOCK: Judge Kopf, did you have any idea at the time that the defendant who had appeared before you, whom you had sent to prison, had become a jailhouse lawyer, started having success?

KOPF: I didn't learn about that until much later, and I was absolutely stunned. A lawyer who writes a cert petition and gets it granted - that's a career hallmark. An inmate to do that sort of thing, is just unheard of.

BLOCK: Well, the two of you have been having a really fascinating exchange online, on Judge Kopf's blog. And Judge Kopf, I wonder if you could read from your post after that memorable line that I quoted - Hopwood proves that my sentencing instincts suck.

KOPF: Sure, I'd be happy to. (Reading) 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. My gut told me that Hopwood was a punk - all mouth, and very little else. My viscera was wrong.

BLOCK: Do you have that feeling very often, knowing that you have maybe been misguided, been wrong in a sentencing?

KOPF: I do. I second-guess myself all the time.

BLOCK: You do?

KOPF: Oh, sure. I don't think that many judges would disagree with me about that. Picking a sentence and imposing it on another human being, no matter how it's rationalized - and particularly in the federal system, where the goals of sentencing are very broad and conflicting, at times - one can never be - or at least, I've never been certain that a sentence that I imposed is the correct one. I try to do my best, and that's about all I can do.

BLOCK: Shon, do you think Judge Kopf's viscera, as he put it, do you think that he was wrong in how he assessed you back in 1999, when you appeared before him?

HOPWOOD: No, I don't. I think people were surprised about the commentary back and forth between us - myself and the judge. But I don't know what people expect. It almost seems as if people expect me to say hey, Judge - you know - I turned out to be a productive citizen; I'm a responsible husband and father; I'm a law school student. How about those apples?

BLOCK: (Laughter)

HOPWOOD: But why would I say that? I couldn't back up what I said back in 1999. And the sentence the judge gave me was in accordance with the law, at that time. And I had committed some pretty serious crimes, and I deserved to go to prison. So I have never been resentful, or never thought that my sentence was unjust.

BLOCK: Judge Kopf, how does that strike you, what Shon just said?

KOPF: Well, that's the kind of intellectual honesty that humbles me. That I was unable to see that Shon had the capacity for that, when I sentenced him, reinforces - and here, I'll disagree with him - my viscera was wrong. You know, Shon's ability to be introspective and intellectually honest is the hallmark, I think, of rehabilitation. Whether he needed almost 13 years in prison to find that is an entirely different thing.

And Shon and I have talked about that. I think both he and I agree that if you were only interested in addressing the needs of most prisoners, a sentence of five years is plenty.

BLOCK: Let me just clarify here, Judge. You're saying that if the only goal is rehabilitation, if you're not thinking about punishment and what an appropriate punishment is for a crime, then you're saying five years should be the maximum.

KOPF: Well, even if you're thinking about punishment for that individual, five years is plenty.

BLOCK: Shon, I know you've promised the judge whom you'll be clerking for next year - this is Judge Janice Rogers Brown - that you won't discuss your interview with her. So I am not going to ask about that. But I am curious if you can tell us about your personal hopes for the clerkship, and what it means to you.

HOPWOOD: Well, I think it represents to federal prisoners and former prisoners, hope. Because if I am given a second chance and allowed to have a job like that, maybe they can do it. And in fact, I went into the Washington prisons in July and talked to them, and told them that I was going to have an interview with a federal judge about a clerkship. And the prisoners jumped up on their feet and started clapping.

BLOCK: No kidding.

HOPWOOD: And for that reason alone, I am incredibly honored and excited to go clerk for Judge Brown.

BLOCK: Do you hear from prisoners who know about you?

HOPWOOD: Every day, I receive emails not only from prisoners but parents of prisoners, especially parents whose - their children are in their late teens and early 20s, and have committed crimes and ended up in jail. And they're wondering whether their son or daughter can ever turn it around. To them, I represent a slice of hope.

BLOCK: Judge Kopf, any thoughts on that?

KOPF: I think Shon said it perfectly. I don't want to try to gild that lily.

BLOCK: (Laughing) It is a remarkable story. You do wonder just how much of an anomaly this is. Does it give false hope to people who may not have the skills, the wherewithal - whatever it took - for Shon to do what he's done?

KOPF: Let me give you another example. I have a weed whacker at home. The weed whacker was broken. I took the weed whacker into the weed whacker shop. Young man at the weed whacker shop looked at it, told me what he needed to do, and said he would do it and then said, you're a judge, aren't you? And I said, yes. He said, you probably don't remember, but you sentenced me.

And he'd gone to prison for a drug - federal drug offense, and he'd gotten out; and he was repairing weed whackers and mowing machines and that sort of thing. And he was so happy, so calm, so right with the world.

All of us are not going to end up like Shon Hopwood, clerking for Janice Rogers Brown. But all of us can repair - well, all of us can try; I can't repair a weed whacker. But all of us can aspire to do something productive.

BLOCK: How did you leave it as you left the shop, there, Judge Kopf?

KOPF: I said, you'd better fix that damn weed whacker.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Just cut to the chase.

KOPF: No. I saw him from time to time thereafter, and we always sort of chuckled.

BLOCK: Shon, let me ask you something. As a convicted felon, I gather there's a real question as to whether you will be admitted to the bar. How does that work?

HOPWOOD: Well, it really depends on which state I plan on taking the bar in. Many of them have gone to a model where they look - if someone has a prior criminal history, they look to rehabilitation. And I'd like to think that the things I've done since prison, and the volunteer hours I've put in and the people that will go to bat for me, will make a difference to the bar association.

BLOCK: Judge Kopf, any reason that you can see why Shon Hopwood should not be allowed to practice law?

KOPF: None. Zero, zilch, nada. I don't know how to express it any other way. If this young man doesn't get a law license, there's something wrong.

BLOCK: And if he needs a letter of reference, he can turn to you. (Laughing)

KOPF: You're damn right.

HOPWOOD: Thank you, Judge.

KOPF: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Well, Shon Hopwood and Judge Kopf, thanks to you both for spending time talking to us. I really appreciate it.

KOPF: Thank you.

HOPWOOD: Thank you. It was fun.

BLOCK: That's Shon Hopwood, former federal prisoner turned law clerk and Richard Kopf, the judge who sentenced him 14 years ago. Hopwood is finishing up law school at the University of Washington, in Seattle. After he's done, he'll clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. You can find a link to the judge's blog, Hercules and The Umpire, at our website.

You can also read an excerpt from Shon Hopwood's memoir, titled "Law Man: My Story Of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases and Finding Redemption." That's all at NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program