Shon Hopwood has taken an unusual path: from bank heists to prison to law school and now a prestigious federal clerkship.
Hopwood, who was released in 2008 after serving ten years in prison for a string of bank robberies, has been offered a position as a clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, generally considered the second most important court in the country, the New York Times reported Monday. Hopwood is about to begin his final year at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, under a full scholarship granted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Hopewell's reformation has sparked a public discussion of prison sentencing and inmate reform. The judge who sentenced Hopwood in 1999, Richard Kopf of the U.S. District Court for Nebraska, wrote about Hopwood on his blog, saying that the former inmate's dramatic reformation shows that "my sentencing instincts suck."
Hopwood held up five banks in rural Nebraska in 1997 and 1998, stealing about $200,000. His technique, as he later recalled, was crude.
"We would walk into a bank with firearms, tell people to get down, take the money and run," he told the Times in 2010. Though nobody was hurt in any of his robberies, he "scared the hell out of the poor bank tellers," Kopf said at his sentencing in 1999.
Hopwood turned out to be a remarkable prison lawyer. He studied law in the prison library. In 2002, despite having no formal legal training, he petitioned to the Supreme Court to hear a case of a fellow inmate who had been arrested for drug crimes. The court, which accepts only around 1% of the petitions it receives, agreed to hear Hopwood's argument.
"It was probably one of the best [certiorari] petitions I have ever read," Seth Waxman, a former U.S. solicitor general who worked on the case, told the Times.
The court ruled in the inmate's favor, 9-0, and his sentence was later reduced by more than four years.