At first glance, Shon Hopwood appears to be a typical American and an average lawyer — he has a wife and two children, served in the U.S. Navy and earned his J.D. from the University of Washington Law School.
But Hopwood’s path to studying law is different from most. The incoming Georgetown University Law Center professor of criminal law began studying the law while serving 11 years in federal prison in Pekin, Ill., for a string of bank robberies he committed in his home state of Nebraska.
Hopwood cites immaturity and impulse control issues as the factors that led him to robbing banks when he was 22.
“I had no purpose in life. I woke up every day and had no idea what I wanted to do with life or even what I should be doing,” Hopwood said. “Then a bunch of other guys who were in similar circumstances to me, who had no purpose in life and drug and alcohol addiction, and you throw all of that together, along with depression, and the result was a bunch of us deciding to go rob these banks.”
Hopwood began teaching at Georgetown in 2015 as a graduate teaching fellow in GULC’s Appellate Litigation Clinic, while he pursued his Master of Laws degree.
Hopwood will teach criminal procedure to first-year law students in the coming fall semester, a choice he said was influenced by his time in prison.
Hopwood said he hopes this experience will aid him as he embarks on training future lawyers.
“It impacted me in that I saw injustices almost every single day, whether it was prison guards abusing prisoners or people that came into the system on nonviolent drug offenses that had been charged with possessing a handful of crack and received 20-year mandatory minimum sentences,” he said. “It didn’t make much sense that the federal prison system was just warehousing people and not providing them with any sort of job skills or life training and then kicking them out into the world and expecting a miracle to happen, which is why the recidivism rate is so high.”
Hopwood is a second-year fellow at the Appellate Litigation Clinic, where he guides third-year law students as they take on professional assignments from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Professor Erica Hashimoto has worked with Hopwood as co-director of the ALC.
“The amazing thing about Shon is that he is the perfect combination between really, really bright and a good lawyer, but also just a real human being,” Hashimoto said. “He’s very practical and nice and really good with the students and really good with the clients that we represent.”
During his sentence, Hopwood said he read law books in the prison library as an escape from the violence and grimness around him.
“Your movements and your entire personal liberty can be violated at any time by prison authorities or by physical attacks from other prisoners,” Hopwood said. “You have to remain vigilant at all times when you’re in a serious prison like I was. I found solace in the law and reading books and education. That sustained me throughout my time in prison.”
After teaching himself law for 18 months, Hopwood became a jailhouse lawyer, typing out two certiorari petitions to the United States Supreme Court on the prison typewriter. He argued for a judicial review of the inmates’ cases.
John Fellers, one of these inmates, had not been provided Miranda rights, constitutionally protected rights for inmates including freedom from self-incrimination, during his arrest, in violation of the Sixth Amendment.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court granted hearings to both of his petitions.
Hashimoto said the Supreme Court granting a certiorari petition — let alone that of a self-taught, federal inmate — is extremely rare.
“He had researched just as a lawyer would do and could present the issue in a way that the United States Supreme Court could understand it and understand why he was right,” Hashimoto said. “That’s pretty amazing for somebody who hadn’t at that point even graduated from college, let alone law school.”
Upon his release from prison in 2009, Hopwood said he struggled to find lasting employment. After working briefly as a telemarketer, he landed his first legal job at Cockle Printing in Omaha, Neb., where lawyers from all over the country filed briefs to the Supreme Court.
Following his wife’s urging, Hopwood returned to school, earning an undergraduate degree from Bellevue University in Nebraska, and a law degree from the University of Washington. Upon graduation, he worked multiple clerkships for well-known judges, and passed the bar examination in 2014. In 2015, he applied for a fellowship with the Georgetown Appellate Litigation Clinic.
Professor Steven Goldblatt, the clinic’s other co-director, said Hopwood’s analytical abilities set him apart from other applicants.
“My first impressions were that he was very interesting, very talented,” Goldblatt said. “It was clear to me that his analytical skills were off the charts. He has a knack and a talent with the law that he can be very creative, and it comes very naturally.”
Hashimoto said she is confident Hopwood will be an incredible professor.
“The students will learn so much from him, just as the clinic students have learned from him,” Hashimoto said. “They will certainly learn the basics of lawyering that they need from the classes he teaches, but they also will understand the ways in which law affects people. That’s one of the most important things that we can help our students understand when they’re in law school. When they go out and become practicing lawyers, law is not a game.”
Hopwood said the main lesson he hopes to impart on his future students is that the law has real-world consequences.
“Law is not just words on a page,” he said. “It impacts people sometimes for life. One wrong mistake can impact someone’s life forever. I would hope that they would see me as having a lot of passion towards criminal law and trying to make society better, and maybe that would inspire them to go into the same field.”