How did a prisoner draft a successful Supreme Court brief?

Shon Hopwood was sentenced to 13 years for robbery in 1999 and vowed to the sentencing judge that he would change. Within three years he was drafting a successful certiorari petition to the Supreme Court for a fellow inmate. Recently released from prison, Hopwood works as a paralegal and wants to apply to law school, showing that change is possible.

Hopwood committed five robberies in the late 90s, but never hurt anyone. After being sentenced in 1999, he immersed himself in the prison library. In 2002 he crafted a brief for a fellow inmate that was submitted to the Supreme Court. Out of over 7,000 petitions from prisoners, the Supreme Court selected eight cases to be heard, including the Hopwood’s submission. The petition was successful, and Hopwood’s friend had his sentence reduced by four years. The inmate was released prior to Hopwood, and gave Hopwood a Mercedes from his car dealership after Hopwood got out.

Law school lasts three years. Most law students are not great writers by the end of school. Without a doubt, the majority of law students could not draft a Supreme Court brief at the end of their schooling. Even a law student with tutelage from a professor is unlikely to reach that skill level. Hopwood was unlikely to have had access to the best written materials, and was unlikely to have received any instruction from anyone before crafting the brief. 

Hopwood probably had less distractions then a typical law student, if you do not consider living in a prison a distraction (which is questionable). On the other hand, Hopwood would have been able to focus every second of free time into drafting his brief. Pouring hours into a brief, however, is not a recipe for success, especially at the Supreme Court level. For Hopwood, the question is not so much what did he learn through his research, but what innate skills does he possess? 

Hopwood undoubtedly possesses an extremely high level of logic and reasoning, which is crucial to any argument before the Supreme Court. He must be an extremely focused and driven individual—drafting briefs is difficult in a noisy office, let alone a prison. He must also be a compassionate person–the brief was for someone else, not him.

However he did it, Hopwood’s story is amazing, and his story is a testament to the power of the human spirit.

A Mediocre Criminal, but an Unmatched Jailhouse Lawyer | New York Times


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