WASHINGTON — A 23-year-old Nebraska bank robber named Shon R. Hopwood stood before a federal judge in Lincoln. He asked for leniency, vowing to change.
Judge Richard G. Kopf had no patience for promises. “We'll know in about 13 years if you mean what you say,” he said. It was 1999.
Kopf, now retired, reflected on the exchange last month.
“When I sent him to prison, I would have bet the farm and all the animals that Hopwood would fail miserably as a productive citizen when he finally got out of prison,” he wrote on his blog. “My gut told me that Hopwood was a punk — all mouth, and very little else.
“My viscera was wrong,” Kopf went on. “Hopwood proves that my sentencing instincts suck.”
Kopf had just heard the news that Hopwood, now a law student, had won a glittering distinction: a clerkship for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is generally considered the second-most-important court in the nation, after the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hopwood's remarkable ascent began in the prison law library, where he became not only a good jailhouse lawyer but also a successful Supreme Court practitioner. Persuading the justices to hear a case is a roughly 100-to-1 proposition, but the court granted the first petition Hopwood filed.
The case, about whether the police had crossed a constitutional line in questioning a suspect in a drug conspiracy, caught the attention of Seth P. Waxman, a former U.S. solicitor general. He said Hopwood's petition, on behalf of another prisoner, was one of the best he had ever read. Waxman agreed to argue the case before the justices on the condition that Hopwood remained on the team.
They won, 9-0.
After being released from prison Hopwood was granted a full scholarship, financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to the University of Washington School of Law. He has also published a book, “Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption.”
During his first two summers at law school, he served as an intern for a federal judge and at a public defender program.
The judge Hopwood worked for last summer said he deserved his 147-month sentence.
“He used a weapon in some of those robberies, and that justified a very heavy hit,” said Judge John C. Coughenour of U.S. District Court in Seattle. “But everybody we sentence has the potential to turn their life around.
“When I took him on, I thought there might be some reservations around the courthouse,” he said. “People might have been concerned about having a convicted felon and former inmate privy to all the confidential materials around here. There was never the slightest objection.”
Hopwood turned down an interview request, citing his impending clerkship.
But Hopwood and Kopf have conducted an extraordinary public dialogue on the judge's blog, herculesandtheumpire.com.
“I wouldn't say that your sentencing instincts suck,” Hopwood told the man who sent him away. “I was a reckless and selfish young man back then. I changed.”
He added, though, that his sentence had been too long. “From my experience,” he wrote, “sentences over five years do little to help society or the prisoner.” Longer sentences rob prisoners of hope, he wrote, discouraging them from preparing for a new and productive life.
Kopf agreed with Hopwood's basic point. “I have thought for a long time that 60 months was about the maximum sentence one should impose if you were solely hoping to make a positive impact on the prisoner,” he wrote.
The exchange occurred on Aug. 8, and it was in a way prescient. Four days later, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an initiative to address long prison terms required by mandatory minimum sentences.
“Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder said.
Hopwood is 38 now, married and the father of two. Assuming he is granted a license to practice law, notwithstanding his crimes, his future looks bright.
“My original dream,” he told Kopf, “was to become a paralegal — not law school, and definitely not a future clerk on the D.C. Circuit.
“I feel fortunate that I have been given so many second chances, including the sentence which allowed me to be released at a fairly young age,” he said.
In all, he said, “I received a large dollop of God's grace.”