Shon Hopwood's life has been as bewildering as a blizzard for the past 13 years.
He robbed five Nebraska banks, spent a decade behind bars, stumbled upon a rare talent for legal writing, got out of federal prison, landed a job in Omaha, married the girl he had a secret crush on in high school, saw his son born on Christmas Day and now — over four crazy days this week — has fielded calls from around the world about his life story.
Sounds like a movie?
Well, filmmakers have been calling too, and book deals are on the table. He's scheduled to give a speech to Harvard law students next month. And his 7-week-old son just smiled at him for the first time.
“I love my new life. I'm grateful every day,” Hopwood, 34, said Wednesday from his downtown office. He's talking about his life even before fame burst upon him this week, when a New York Times account of his strange tale circulated around the Internet, headlined: “A Mediocre Criminal, but an Unmatched Jailhouse Lawyer.”
It all started when — in the movie, if one is made, this is where the screen will go all wavy...
Shon R. Hopwood grew up in David City, Neb., where his mother still lives. He played sports, graduated from high school and went off to Midland Lutheran College in Fremont on a basketball scholarship.
That lasted one semester. He left school and spent two years in the Navy. By then he was “a stupid kid,” smoking pot and drinking too much, hanging around with a bad crowd, he said. That led to the string of rural bank robberies in 1997 and '98, which partly went to finance his drug habit, he later told the sentencing judge.
Hopwood and five others, including his kid brother Brett, hit banks in Petersburg, Hallam, Gresham, Peru and Pilger, although not in a very sophisticated fashion.
“We would walk into a bank with firearms, tell people to get down, take the money and run,” he said. They got about $200,000. And prison terms.
At his 1999 sentencing, Hopwood, then 23, tearfully told U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf that “through this whole thing, I've become a better person. Unlike most people in this system, I had a good, loving family that raised me the right way. I have no excuse.”
Kopf said he hoped the young man had learned a lesson, adding, “We'll know in about 13 years.” Then, as family members cried in the courtroom, he sent Hopwood to a federal prison in Illinois for 12 years and three months.
That's where the story took a truly unusual turn.
Hopwood spent a lot of time in the prison library and, as he recalls, a U.S. Supreme Court decision caught his eye in June 2000.
“It was Apprendi versus New Jersey,” a case involving sentencing rules, which Hopwood thought might lead to a reduction in his own term. It didn't. But in the process of studying the law, “I found out I kind of enjoyed it.”
Two years later, using a prison typewriter, he helped a fellow inmate, John Fellers, prepare a request for a Supreme Court hearing, a document known as a petition for certiorari. The court got 7,209 petitions that year from prisoners and others too poor to pay the filing fee, and it agreed to hear just eight. One was the Fellers case.
“It was probably one of the best cert. petitions I have ever read,” Seth Waxman, a former U.S. solicitor general who has argued more than 50 cases in the Supreme Court, told the Times. “It was just terrific.”
Waxman agreed to take the case on one condition: that “this guy Shon Hopwood” help him prepare. The two men conferred, framed the arguments, mapped strategy and in the end won a 9-0 ruling from the court.
That alone would have guaranteed Hopwood acclaim in legal circles. Writing petitions for certiorari is a rare and difficult art that combines writing skill, analysis and insight into the minds of the justices. Hopwood followed up the feat by doing it again.
In 2005, his second petition was accepted by the high court. The newly minted jailhouse lawyer also helped other inmates from Nebraska, Indiana and Michigan win sentence reductions from lower courts.
“I kind of flourished there,” he said of the prison law library. “I didn't want prison to be my destiny. When your life gets tipped over and spilled out, you have to make some changes.”
He'd had nothing like legal experience before that. “In 2000,” he said, “I couldn't have named a right in the Bill of Rights.”
By October 2008, when he was released from prison, Hopwood's life had changed.
By then he had reconnected with a girl he'd known in high school, Ann Marie Metzner. As he tells it now, his mom was working for her dad in David City at KV Supply, a supplier of pet medicines. Ann Marie asked Hopwood's mom about him, wrote to him in prison and then visited.
Hopwood said he noticed during their first meeting, “on the day after Thanksgiving 2001,” that she was wearing an engagement ring. The next day, when she visited again, the ring was gone.
“I think she was kind of looking for a way to get out of it,” he said. The two discovered that they'd had unspoken crushes on each other in high school. Last August they got married. On Christmas, as a snowstorm hit Omaha, son Mark Raymond was born.
Meanwhile, Hopwood had turned his knack for legal work into a solid job, again through a rare twist of circumstances.
Cockle Law Brief Printing Co., at 2311 Douglas St., is one of just five firms nationwide that specializes in helping lawyers prepare filings for the Supreme Court, said co-owner Trish Billotte. The job application from Hopwood was perhaps the oddest she ever received from an aspiring paralegal, and she had misgivings, she said.
There was the prison record, for one thing. And it seemed weird that the man was driving a pristine 1989 Mercedes. It turns out Hopwood had reconnected with Fellers, the first fellow inmate he'd helped, who now owned a car dealership in Lincoln.
“Here,” Fellers had said, presenting the Mercedes. “Thank you for getting me back to my daughter.”
In any case, Billotte checked on Hopwood's references, including the famous former solicitor general.
“You don't get through to Seth Waxman,” Billotte said, so she knew something unusual was afoot when he took her call. Waxman not only confirmed the facts but strongly urged Billotte to put the young man on her staff.
“It was kismet or something,” she said of the charming ex-prisoner with an uncommon talent happening upon one of the few firms in the country eager to use it. “It's just very rare” for someone to successfully petition the Supreme Court, she said. “Two is phenomenal.”
Since his story was publicized this week, Hopwood said, “it's been a whirlwind.” He figures he'll need to hire an agent to field the book and movie calls. He's been flooded with requests from prisoners who think he can work magic for them. It was Tuesday night, after he'd finished giving a radio interview to the BBC, that his son smiled for the first time.
“That was really cool.”
Meanwhile, Hopwood is finishing his undergraduate degree at Bellevue University, planning for the speech to Harvard students, thinking about entering law school next year and still working on Supreme Court petitions, the latest of which was filed in December, on behalf of a prisoner in Virginia. He writes fiction too, having won a prize for a story he wrote in prison, which he dedicated to his father, who died of cancer three years ago.
Hopwood got a second chance and made good on it. He wonders how Kopf, the skeptical sentencing judge, might react now. “I'd love to hear what he thinks.”
Mostly, Hopwood is reveling in the reactions of his loved ones, including his mother, Rebecca Hopwood, and his brother Brett, now a married father of two with a sales job in St. Louis. Brett, he said, who partly because of his juvenile status served a much shorter prison term, is “just ecstatic about this.”
“It feels good to have my family proud of me again ... after all I put them through,” he said.
This report contains material from the New York Times.
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