Appellate Practice

Superb Skills as Jailhouse Lawyer Put Ex-Inmate in Position to Help Top Attorneys

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Shon Hopwood was caught and convicted for robbing five banks but later proved to be an amazingly good jailhouse lawyer after hitting the books in the prison library.

A 2002 petition for certiorari that he prepared for a fellow inmate, John Fellers, working on a prison typewriter, “was probably one of the best cert petitions I have ever read,” says Seth Waxman, a former United States solicitor general who later represented Fellers in the case. “It was just terrific.”

The Fellers appeal was one of seven accepted among 7,209 petitions submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court that year by inmates and others who couldn’t afford to pay the filing fee, reports the New York Times. Waxman took the case, pro bono, on condition that Hopwood serve, in effect, as his second-chair counsel.

Waxman consulted with Hopwood on his briefing and strategy in the case and eventually Fellers won a four-year reduction in his sentence, after a 9-0 Supreme Court win and a remand. Subsequently, Hopwood helped other inmates with similar cases, all filed under their own names since Hopwood, of course, is not an attorney.

When Hopwood was released a little over a year ago, Fellers, who was operating a thriving car dealership in Lincoln, Neb., gave him a used Mercedes in mint condition. This did not help Hopwood in a subsequent job interview for a paralegal job, as his would-be-boss at the company found his story about his claimed jailhouse lawyering abilities dubious and wondered as well how he came to be driving the car. A phone call to Waxman, however, dispelled her doubts, the newspaper recounts.

Hopwood, who is now 34 and hopes to go to law school down the road, still works at Cockle Printing. The Omaha, Neb., business is a leading printer of Supreme Court briefs.

“What a perfect fit for me,” he tells the Times. “I basically get to help attorneys get their briefs polished and perfected.”

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