Bloomberg News

Bill Gates Sends Ex-Con to Law School After Supreme Court Win

September 01, 2012

Shon Hopwood robbed five banks, went to jail, learned law, wrote a petition that made it to the Supreme Court, served his time, got out, got married, had kids and is now in law school at the University of Washington on a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Much of the credit for “Law Man,” his fine, engrossing memoir, no doubt goes to his co-writer, Dennis Burke. But a lot of it goes to the material.

Entering prison at the age of 23, Hopwood felt dread mixed with exhilaration: “Although I was scared, I wanted to see the place and know that I could handle it -- that I could survive.”

This is what he found:

“If you had a summer camp for kids with extreme anger management problems, and you took away most of the adults, added weapons, and you didn’t let anyone go home for years and years, you’d have a U.S. prison. It’s strictly ‘Lord of the Flies.’”

He did survive, through a mixture of intelligence (not least about people) and fearlessness. Hopwood writes with a humility free of meekness that is probably basic to his personality. It must have helped him make friends -- and avoid making enemies -- in the pen.

Unlike many prisoners, he still had the glimmer of a future (his sentence was 12 years, of which he served nine and a half), especially once he started getting letters from his high-school crush.

Fast Learner

Pretty much out of happenstance, he wound up working in the prison law library. He was a fast learner. (“It turns out,” he writes of the correspondence courses he signed up for, “that school is not so difficult if you actually read the textbooks.”)

Chance also brought him a fellow prisoner who needed help with a case that proved to be of great interest to the Supreme Court, which not only accepted his petition but, in the end, bought his argument.

Fellers v. United States involved the reading of Miranda rights and the proper application of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

Long Odds

“The Court, in fact, receives tens of thousands of prisoner-written briefs,” Hopwood writes. It “usually grants only about 1 percent of cases that are filed, and far, far less than that for cases that are filed pro se, without the help of a lawyer.”

He and Burke are very good at laying out the legal issues and portraying prison life. But they leave a gap exactly where I was most curious: How did a fledgling law librarian attain the jurisprudential proficiency to argue a case so persuasively?

Only very briefly do we see Hopwood, or sense him, in the process of learning. Maybe it would take a novelist’s skill to render that kind of growth comprehensible. Otherwise, he and Burke have come up with what must be the best possible version of his voice.

That voice belongs to a confident, likable man who isn’t trying to gloss over the idiocies of his past but who, much to his surprise, has accomplished things it took going to prison to find out he had it in him to achieve.

“Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases and Finding Redemption” is from Crown (308 pages, $25.) To buy this book in North America, click.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans on TV and Jeremy Gerard on theater.

To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at cseligman@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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