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Former Bank Robber Becomes a Law Professor

Shon Hopwood grew up in a Christian home in rural Nebraska. When his high-school basketball career faded and college and the military fell through, he was left with a complete lack of purpose. So, it sounded like a good idea when his best friend suggested they rob a bank.

They robbed five banks with guns. Shon knew it was wrong. Still, he couldn’t stop because of the easy money and party lifestyle that it brought him. It ended when he was arrested by the FBI and sentenced by a federal judge to 12 years in federal prison. He was 23.

Shon took a job in the prison law library. He began learning the law. Over the years he took on fellow prisoners’ cases, writing petitions they would then file in federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. Fellow prisoners began calling him a “jailhouse lawyer.”

His next cell-door neighbor, Robert, would grumble about missing out on the lives of his children and he ranted about a friend who had turned against him and testified at his trial. He said he wished that guy would die. It was clear to Shon that the bitterness of life and prison had consumed him.

Shon said,

One day I walked over to Robert’s cell and watched as he smiled and danced around while sweeping the floor. My first thought was that he had scored some drugs. But when I asked why he seemed so different, he said, ‘Shon, I’m with Jesus now.’ Within days Robert had forgiven the man who had testified against him. Today, Robert is back on his farm with his family, and once a week he treks back into prison to lead a men’s Bible study.

Robert was neither the first nor the last prisoner I saw experience a complete and utter life turnaround. These inmates had a great effect on me because I saw how grace can transform everyone, even prisoners.

Shon was released in 2009, during the heart of the recession, when work was hard to find, especially for a former inmate. But then another grace arrived: He found a position at a leading printer of Supreme Court briefs in Omaha, helping attorneys perfect their briefs.

Shon became engaged but the pastor would not marry them without premarital counseling. During the first session, the pastor asked what they believed about Jesus. Shon said, “When he talked about grace, that free gift of salvation, I listened, especially when he said that I could be forgiven. ‘Yeah, even you, Shon.’ I couldn’t escape the feeling that God had been pursuing me for a long time.”

Shon writes:

In Ephesians 1:7–8, Paul writes that in Christ “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.” Grace says we are not defined by our failures and our faults, but by a love without merit or condition. God’s grace was enough to redeem me.

Nearly five years have passed since I made the most important decision of my life: to surrender to this grace. I got married, and my wife also became a believer. We moved to Seattle so I could attend the University of Washington Law School on a full-ride scholarship. Looking back over the course of my life, I can see that although I rarely returned the favor, God hotly pursued me.

Editor’s Note: Today Shon Robert Hopwood is an author, appellate lawyer, and professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.

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