(NY Times) Shon R. Hopwood was not a particularly sophisticated bank robber.
“We would walk into a bank with firearms, tell people to get down, take the money and run,” he said the other day, recalling five robberies in rural Nebraska in 1997 and 1998 that yielded some $200,000 and more than a decade in federal prison.
Mr. Hopwood spent much of that time in the prison law library, and it turned out he was better at understanding the law than breaking it. He transformed himself into something rare at the top levels of the American bar, and unheard of behind bars: an accomplished Supreme Court practitioner.
He prepared his first petition for certiorari — a request that the Supreme Court hear a case — for a fellow inmate on a prison typewriter in 2002. Since Mr. Hopwood was not a lawyer, the only name on the brief was that of the other prisoner, John Fellers.
The court received 7,209 petitions that year from prisoners and others too poor to pay the filing fee, and it agreed to hear just eight of them. One was Fellers v. United States.
“It was probably one of the best cert. petitions I have ever read,” said Seth P. Waxman, a former United States solicitor general who has argued more than 50 cases in the Supreme Court. “It was just terrific.”
Mr. Waxman agreed to take the case on without payment. But he had one condition.
“I will represent you,” Mr. Waxman recalled telling Mr. Fellers, “if we can get this guy Shon Hopwood involved.”
Mr. Fellers said sure. “It made me feel good that we had Shon there to quarterback it,” he said.
The former solicitor general showed the bank robber drafts of his briefs. The two men consulted about how to frame the arguments, discussed strategy and tried to anticipate questions from the justices.
The case was about whether the police had crossed constitutional lines in questioning Mr. Fellers, who had been convicted of a drug conspiracy. Mr. Hopwood said he thought persuading Justice Sandra Day O’Connor would be crucial.
In January 2004, Mr. Waxman called Mr. Hopwood at the federal prison in Pekin, Ill. They had won a 9-to-0 victory. Justice O’Connor wrote the opinion.
The case took some more turns in the lower courts, but in the end Mr. Fellers’s sentence was reduced by four years.
No one was hurt in Mr. Hopwood’s bank robberies, but he and his accomplices “scared the hell out of the poor bank tellers,” Judge Richard G. Kopf of Federal District Court in Lincoln, Neb., said in sentencing him to prison in 1999.
The judge was skeptical about Mr. Hopwood’s vow that he would change. “We’ll know in about 13 years if you mean what you say,” Judge Kopf said.
The law library changed Mr. Hopwood’s life.
“I kind of flourished there,” he said. “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 was a quick study, but he had a lot to learn.
“In 2000,” he said, “I couldn’t have named a right in the Bill of Rights.”
By 2005, the Supreme Court had granted a second petition prepared by Mr. Hopwood, vacating a lower court decision and sending the case back for a fresh look. Mr. Hopwood has also helped inmates from Indiana, Michigan and Nebraska get sentence reductions of 3 to 10 years from lower courts.
Mr. Hopwood was released from prison in the fall of 2008. Mr. Fellers was out by then, and he owned a thriving car dealership in Lincoln.
“Here,” Mr. Fellers said, presenting his jailhouse lawyer with a 1989 Mercedes in pristine condition. “Thank you for getting me back to my daughter.”
Mr. Hopwood now works for a leading printer of Supreme Court briefs, Cockle Printing in Omaha.
“What a perfect fit for me,” he said. “I basically get to help attorneys get their briefs polished and perfected.”
His boss at Cockle, Trish Billotte, said she had some misgivings about hiring Mr. Hopwood. It was hard to believe his story, for starters, and it struck her as curious that an aspiring paralegal was driving around in a Mercedes.
But she called Mr. Hopwood’s references, including the former solicitor general. “You don’t get through to Seth Waxman,” Ms. Billotte said. But she did, and Mr. Waxman confirmed the facts and offered his endorsement.
“We did take a risk, but we have no second thoughts,” Ms. Billotte said. “Zero regrets.”
Mr. Hopwood, who is 34, said he hoped to apply to law school next year. Richard Friedman, a law professor at the University of Michigan who worked with Mr. Hopwood on the briefs for a recent Supreme Court case, said that he had already talked to the admissions office there about saving a spot.
Mr. Hopwood’s personal life is looking up, too. He married in August, and he and his wife had a son on Christmas Day.
Mr. Hopwood takes nothing lightly, Professor Friedman said.
“His gratitude for the quality of his life,” the professor said, “is that of someone who has come back from a near-death experience.”
Mr. Hopwood continues to work on Supreme Court petitions. The latest one was filed in December, for a prisoner in Virginia who said his Miranda rights had been violated.
Last month, the solicitor general’s office, led by Elena Kagan, a former dean of the Harvard Law School, asked for and received an extra month to try to rebut the arguments of the paralegal from Omaha.