Armed with guns, Shon Hopwood and his cohorts robbed five banks, landing Shon and his brother in prison. Law Man is the story of it all and what happened afterward.
Q&A with Shon Hopwood, Author of Law Man
The following interview is with Shon Hopwood, author of the newly published book Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption (with Dennis Burke, published by Crown).
Law Man is the true story of Shon Hopwood, who grew up in Nebraska. His parents were people of faith. A good and friendly kid, Shon went to college on a basketball scholarship. Before completing college, however, he joined the Navy, served his country and returned home. But fate does not always smile kindly on good people. Out of work, out of luck and out of any idea of how to find a way out, young Hopwood turned to crime: Armed with guns, he and his cohorts robbed five banks. It landed Shon and his brother in prison. Law Man is the story of it all and what happened afterward.
Today, Shon Hopwood is a Gates Public Service Law Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law. Earlier this year he was a student (one of the best) in my constitutional law class. — Ron Collins
In so many wondrous ways, Law Man is a story of redemption. But before we get to that part of it, there was a big dollop of hell. You robbed banks, you brought your brother into it and you brought incredible shame upon your family. How is that sort of thing forgiven? How did your parents do it?
To be honest, I have no idea! Actually, as a father now myself, I understand a little more of what it means to love my children unconditionally. In some ways, the underlying story in Law Man is about the circumstances testing just how far my parents’ unconditional love went. They were angry, of course, but they never gave up on me, and I think that is a testament to the type of parents they are.
At age 23 you went to federal prison and served 10 years. In your book you discuss jail life along with the brutal inhumanity of prisoner-on-prisoner violence. You write: “The deceptions and fantasies of American culture take an extreme form in prison.” Briefly, elaborate on that for us.
American culture is one of violence. Our movies are violent, our music is violent, even our public discourse contains violent undertones. So, it is no surprise that prison would reflect the worst aspects of American culture, right down to the violence acted out by the prisoners.
“Unlike a lot of the men around me,” you wrote, “I still believed that I wasn’t a lost cause.” Why?
I don’t know if I really believed that at the time, but I needed to have some sort of hope. I was in federal prison facing at least a decade-long sentence, and I needed to believe that I could still turn it around. That belief was not cemented until after my now wife, Ann Marie, started writing me, and after the Supreme Court granted one of my petitions. It’s amazing what a little success will do to a person’s psyche.
In a lawless world populated by lawless men, you found the law in a prison library. More remarkable still, you became a “jailhouse lawyer” and filed a petition with the Supreme Court to hear the case of a fellow prisoner, John Fellers. The court agreed to hear the case. In basketball jargon, that’s like a turnaround jump shot from 100 feet out. Once that happened, did you ever think that one day (against all odds) you might find your way to law school?
The short answer is no. But when you have a beautiful woman convinced you can go to law school and then a former U.S. solicitor general [Seth Waxman] tells you to go to law school, you start to drink the Kool-Aid and believe it yourself.
Law Man is also a love story, a story about the woman behind the man who turned his life around. It is the story of your wife, Ann Marie. Say a few words, if you will, about your lady and why she stayed with you.
Winning a Supreme Court case as a self-taught jailhouse lawyer is a miracle. No doubt about it. But if people could meet my wife for only a few minutes, and then meet me, they would see that the biggest miracle in my life is the fact that I am married to Ann Marie. Not only is she beautiful, she is also one of the kindest, most intelligent, most competent people I know. I just hope she doesn’t wake up one day and realize just how amazing she really is! She just might wonder what she is doing with me.
In Law Man you wrote: “The more danger you’re in, the more your perspective narrows. Your imagination shuts down. Your empathy shuts down. Your creative vision closes in.” And in no time, you add, the inevitable happens even as you deny its arrival. Are you now out of danger, Shon?
In one sense, I don’t think any of us are ever out of danger. In another sense, most of the danger I faced in Law Man has long been gone. The guy I am now at 37 is not the same guy I was at 22. Now, my main danger is working too many hours and running out of baby wipes in the middle of a diaper change.
Do you feel you owe society anything, or do you think you’ve served your time and by that measure have paid your debt?
So far as society is concerned, I think I’ve paid my time. You can’t write a law that says if you mess up, you then have to serve X amount of time and when you come out of prison and you’ve made some positive change, society will welcome you back, and then not do it. I think some of the country’s problems with prison reentry and crime are related to the notion that anyone who commits a felony is relegated to second-class citizenship, forever. But on a personal level, I never feel like I’ve paid my debt. I probably never will. All I can do now to pay that debt is to give my time and energy to others.
“The kindness of friends” is an idea that appears throughout Law Man. Tell us about that and how it affects your overall view of life.
I didn’t turn my life around on my own; my story isn’t a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps story. I did some pulling, but so did a lot of other people. So, even when something positive happens in my life and people are quick to give me praise, I always remember the people that showed me kindness and the work they did to get me to this point. And I try to pass that kindness onto others.
Seth Waxman, the former United States solicitor general, is an important part of the Law Man story. Share with us a few of your thoughts about him and his role in your life.
What people don’t realize is that Seth never needed to keep me involved with the Supreme Court case that I managed to get the court to hear. Seth is one of the best appellate attorneys in the entire country, and yet, he sent drafts of his briefs to a federal prisoner to ask for input. I think that is remarkable. Also, he always made me feel as if I mattered, which is huge for someone who has hit rock bottom. And he always encouraged me to push towards a career in law even when I was up against concrete walls. And Seth has been an amazing friend and mentor to me ever since.
Redemption is a two-way street: One must first seek forgiveness and it must then be granted. Tell us a little bit about the role of faith and how it shaped your life in prison and afterward.
Several years ago I quit believing that I am just a lucky recipient of chance; that all these amazing things just happened. I believe that the assistance given to me by others was a genuine gift of God’s grace. I plan to give others the same gift through public service law, prison ministry and by simply being a good neighbor.
You’re a high-adrenaline sort of person. Where do you see that energy taking you? What’s the next chapter in Shon Hopwood’s life story?
I think trial and appellate advocacy is in my future. I have done some of that work in the past, and I really enjoyed it. I like the competition, the pressure of it. It’s like mental sports.
One more thing, Shon. Might there be another book in you?
Not in the near future. As you might know, these “heartless people” called law professors tend to heap tons of reading assignments on law school students, so I don’t know how I would fit it in. I will probably focus on the scholarly projects I have already committed to for the next few years, and if Law Man does well, then I might think about another book after law school.
Ronald Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law. His next book, Nuanced Absolutism: Floyd Abrams and the First Amendment, comes out in January. He is also on the editorial board of The Independent.