Shon Hopwood was not a particularly sophisticated bank robber. His bank-robbing strategy was not well planned. Listen to the strategy of someone assuming one of the most difficult tasks to get away with in this country: “We would walk into a bank with firearms, tell people to get down, take the money and run.”
Brilliant, right? Wrong. Shon pulled off 5 robberies in rural Nebraska in 1997 and 1998 that only brought in $200,000 in cash and resulted in over a decade-long vacation in federal prison. Yep. He got caught and went to prison.
No one was hurt in Mr. Hopwood’s bank robberies, but, according to the judge who sentenced Shon to prison in 1999, he and his accomplices “scared the (inserting Baptifanity* replacement word) heck out of the poor bank tellers.”
The judge was skeptical about Mr. Hopwood’s vow that he would change. He had heard it over and over again from those caught and convicted of crimes. After Shon's pledge to change, the judge said, “We’ll know in about 13 years if you mean what you say.”
Getting caught has a way of changing us. The honesty of it all is this: We get caught every time. There is never a time, never a crime, never a sin, never a slight of hand or eye that is not both seen and recorded. God sees. God knows. When I miss the mark, He doesn’t miss noticing that I missed the mark.
Ironically, getting caught is sometimes the door to true freedom. You’ll find that out about Shon Hopwood in a few minutes. You can see it in a nameless criminal in the gospel of Luke 23, beginning at verse 32 right now.
"There were also two others, criminals, led with Him (Jesus) to be put to death" (Luke 23:32). Criminals. The King James Version calls them "malefactors." The word in Luke is a combination of two words: "evil" and "work." Luke called them evildoers. Matthew and Mark were more specific and called them robbers. Luke wasn’t concerned with the flavor, just the poison. Sin is sin regardless of the label.
Matthew says that both men joined in the sneering and mocking of Jesus at first. But somewhere between verses 37 and 39 of Luke’s account, one of the criminals began to have a change of heart. After the other criminal screamed at Jesus to save Himself and them if He truly was the Messiah, the other criminal rebuked his partner in crime. He confessed that, of the three hanging on a cross that day, only one didn't deserve to be there. Then he turned to Jesus and said, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom" (v. 42).
How is getting caught the door to true freedom? To receive the forgiveness of God, you have to first admit you failed. Our conscience is supposed to weigh on us. And it usually does, but not always. When we continue on and push past our conscience, a hardness begins to set in. If left to harden and callous, we can become our very own hardened criminal. Sometimes, the only hope we have left is to get caught.
Had this criminal not been caught and punished on that very day, he may have never looked within himself nor to the Man on the Middle Cross who died to pay the price for his own evil work. But he did get caught. He did hang on a cross to pay humanity for his evil work. Yet simultaneously, the Man next to him hung on the cross to pay the debt owed to God by that evil worker…and this one.
One word made the difference… “Lord.” Jesus, by His own reply to that man in verse 43, opened a door no one ever thought could be opened for such a man. “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise."
No one would have ever picked that cross-hanging criminal to be the Valedictorian of Redemption. If he'd had a high school yearbook, the only thing written in it would have been, "You'll never amount to anything." Had we interviewed the old men from his neighborhood, they would have spoken of him in disgust, "That boy has been trouble since the day he was born."
But that boy was escorted by Jesus to the kingdom of heaven as the first trophy of God's amazing, redeeming grace.
Shon committed the crime and was forced to do the time. Once behind bars, Mr. Hopwood quickly began soul-searching. Prison has a way of getting a person’s attention. Shon 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.”
I would like to say that Shon turned to the Lord. He didn’t. Instead, he spent much of his time in the prison law library, and it turned out he was better at understanding the law than breaking it. He achieved something rare at the top levels of the American bar, and unheard of for someone behind bars: Shon Hopwood became an accomplished Supreme Court practitioner.
He prepared his first petition for certiorari (sir-she-o-rari) — a request that the Supreme Court hear a case — for a fellow inmate using a prison typewriter in 2002. Since Mr. Hopwood wasn’t a lawyer, the only name on the brief was that of the other prisoner, John Fellers.
That year, the court received 7,209 petitions from prisoners and others too poor to pay the filing fee, and it agreed to hear only 8 of them. One was Fellers v. United States .
Seth Waxman was the United States Solicitor General at the time. He had argued more than 50 cases in the Supreme Court. Of Shon’s petition, Waxman said, “It was probably one of the best cert. petitions I have ever read. 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 told Mr. Fellers, “If we can get this guy Shon Hopwood involved.” Mr. Fellers agreed and they both felt good that Shon was there to quarterback the effort.
The former solicitor general showed Shon drafts of his legal briefings. The two men consulted about how to frame the arguments, discussed strategy, and tried to anticipate questions from the justices.
In January 2004, Mr. Waxman called Mr. Hopwood at the federal prison in Illinois to tell him they had won a 9-to-0 victory. Mr. Fellers’s sentence was reduced by 4 years.
The law library changed Mr. Hopwood’s life. Mr. Hopwood helped inmates from Indiana , Michigan and Nebraska get sentence reductions. Mr. Hopwood was released from prison in the fall of 2008. Mr. Fellers, the fellow inmate who was first assisted by Shon, was out before Shon, and owned a thriving car dealership in Lincoln, Nebraska .
“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 cases polished and perfected.”
His boss at Cockle said she had some misgivings about hiring Mr. Hopwood. It was hard to believe his story to start with, and it was really odd to see an aspiring paralegal driving around in a Mercedes.
But she called Mr. Hopwood’s references, including the former solicitor general, and was not only surprised to get right through to Mr. Waxman, but to hear his glowing endorsement of Shon. Did you catch that? Shon got through on the recommendation of a higher authority. So did the man in Luke 23. So do we.
Mr. Hopwood, who is 34, hopes to attend law at the University of Michigan. Mr. Hopwood’s personal life is looking up, too. He is married, and he and his wife had a son on Christmas Day.
A professor at Michigan who had worked with Shon in previous court cases said, “His gratitude for the quality of his life is that of someone who has come back from a near-death experience.”**
I know someone like that. Several someones. The man from Luke 23, the man who wrote what you are reading, and quite possibly the person now reading these words. Ours wasn't a "near-death" experience. It was a "true-death" experience. We were truly dead in our sins and needed the life-giving power of the blood of Jesus to make us alive to God. When you've been brought from death to life, you can't help but be grateful.
Excerpts from my favorite current writer are quite fitting here:
"The past doesn’t have to be your prison. You have a voice in your destiny. You have a say in your life. You have a choice in the path you take."
Remember this. Jesus, from the cross "saw you cast into a river of life you didn't request. He saw you betrayed by those you love. He saw you with a body that gets sick and a heart that grows weak. He saw you in your own garden of gnarled trees and sleeping friends. He saw you staring into the pit of your own failures and the mouth of your own grave. He saw you in your own garden of Gethsemane and he didn't want you to be alone ... He would rather go to hell for you than to heaven without you."***
*Baptifanity - replacement words used by Baptists instead of cusswords.
**Shon's story was published in the New York Times, February 9, 2010, and was written by Adam Liptak.