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Legal Learning: Autobiography offers inspiring look at inmate's life

James Manahan

"Law Man" is a book by Shon Hopwood. It is his autobiography. It is one of the most violent, impressive, scary and inspiring books I have ever read.

Shon Hopwood starts out by telling about robbing five banks as a young man in Nebraska. He got caught, was convicted, and was sent to federal prison for 10 years.

The first part of the book tells about his years in prison. His description of the violence, the gangs, the macho rivalries, the drugs, the struggle to survive, is enough to deter anyone from a life of crime. As he puts it: "Prison is danger in a box, but it is also, at bottom, a grinding routine of boredom."

However, he managed to get a job in the prison library at 30 cents an hour, and started reading law books in his spare time. As his knowledge increased, so did his ability to help other inmates with their appeals. In one case particularly, he thought he saw a violation of the constitution that lawyers had not noticed before. He prepared a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court asking them to review the conviction.

The United States Supreme Court gets thousands of appeals every year, and selects only a few to review. Petitions from prison inmates are almost always rejected. But Hopwood's petition caught their eye and they agreed to hear the case.

He then contacted a famous appeals lawyer in Washington, Seth Waxman, and persuaded him to argue the case in the Supreme Court. Amazingly, the Supreme Court agreed 9-0 with Hopwood and reversed the conviction.

After he got out of prison, it was difficult to find employment; most employers don't want to hire an ex-con. He finally landed a job with a company that prints legal briefs, so he had more opportunities to study law.

He decided to apply to law school, and won a full-tuition scholarship from the Bill Gates Program to attend the University of Washington. The grant came with the condition that he must work for five years in public interest law, helping indigent clients.

After law school Hopwood got a job as a law clerk for a federal judge, Janice Rogers Brown. Despite his felony record, the Washington Supreme Court decided, by majority vote, to grant him a law license, ruling that he possessed the requisite character and fitness to practice law.

In fact, the judge who had sentenced him to prison wrote that "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. My gut told me that Hopwood was a punk — all mouth, and very little else. Hopwood proves that my sentencing instincts suck."

Shon Hopwood is now a professor of law at Georgetown University.

The book is also a sweet love story. Since high school, Hopwood had fantasized about a classmate named Ann Marie. She started writing to him in prison and they fell in love by mail. Her struggles with anorexia are told in heartbreaking detail.

Eventually, they married, had children, and she also won a scholarship to law school and is now a lawyer like Shon.

As he concludes his book, Hopwood says: "Grace happens. Redemption is possible. Second chances are needed."

What an inspiring book!

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota's Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at or