Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Large Dollop of God's Grace

Shon Hopwood was 22 in 1999 when he pled guilty to five counts of bank robbery and one count of using a firearm during a crime of violence.  Judge Richard Kopf sentenced him to just over 12 years in prison. 

Hopwood was, he says now, "a reckless and selfish young man back then."  But, he adds,
I changed. I think most of us change from the age of 22 to 38. And many, like me, outgrow the irresponsibility and foolishness.
Hopwood did it in a fairly dramatic way.  Writing in the Times Monday morning, Adam Liptak explained.
Mr. Hopwood’s remarkable ascent began in the prison law library, where he became not only a good jailhouse lawyer but also a successful Supreme Court practitioner. Persuading the justices to hear a case is a roughly 100-to-1 proposition, but the court granted the first petition Mr. Hopwood filed.

The case, about whether the police had crossed a constitutional line in questioning a suspect in a drug conspiracy, caught the attention of Seth P. Waxman, a former United States solicitor general. He said Mr. Hopwood’s petition, on behalf of another prisoner, was one of the best he had ever read. Mr. Waxman agreed to argue the case before the justices on the condition that Mr. Hopwood stayed on the team.

They won, 9-to-0.
Hopwood wrote another cert petition that got accepted, too.  He was, as the title of an earlier Liptak column about him put it, 
A Mediocre Criminal, but an Unmatched Jailhouse Lawyer
He's been out for a few years now.  He's finished his second year of law school at the University of Washington.  He's written a book about himself.  He's getting set, when he gets out of law school, to clerk for Judge Janice Rogers Brown on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  It's sometimes described as the second most powerful court in the country, and it often serves as a feeder for Supreme Court law clerks.

Oh, and did I mention the post on the Atlantic blog about mandatory minimum sentences?

All of which is, and this is something of an understatement, absofuckinglutely incredible.  And inspiring.

That's not why I'm writing about Hopwood, though.  What got me writing was the last line of Liptak's latest piece.
In all, [Hopwood] said, “I received a large dollop of God’s grace.”  
I'd actually read that before.  Hopwood wrote it, and I read it, in a comment to a blog post a couple of weeks ago by one Richard Kopf. That's Judge Richard Kopf, the same Judge Richard Kopf who sent Hopwood up the river for a dozen years.  Kopf is a federal district court judge on senior status. His blog, Hercules and the Umpire, is pretty much always worth reading as he speaks with honesty and clarity, and most impressively with humility about the experience and business of being a federal trial court judge.  

Anyhow, Kopf wrote about Hopwood and what he'd done.  And then he makes three points (which capture just why his blog is so good).
    • Hopwood deserves all the credit in the world. I hope he makes the best of an astounding opportunity.
    • Janice Rogers Brown is a hero. Although pilloried by the left when she was appointed, the woman I came to know while serving on the Codes of Conduct Committee for six years is a stunning combination of brilliance and perfectly centered good judgment. She is also a wonderfully humble, kind and decent person.
    • Hopwood proves that my sentencing instincts suck. When I sent him to prison, I would have bet the farm and all the animals that Hopwood would fail miserably as a productive citizen when he finally got out of prison. My gut told me that Hopwood was a punk–all mouth, and very little else.  My viscera was wrong.
And Hopwood wrote a comment.  No, he said.  There was nothing wrong with your instincts.  And, anyway, you were constrained by the sentencing guidelines.  But see,
I made it because I grew up and because I received a large dollop of God’s grace in the form of: 1) a loving family that never gave up on me; 2) finding the law and helping others through the law, which gave me purpose; 3) a beautiful woman who encouraged me (and I later married once I was released); and 4) some gracious lawyers at WilmerHale who mentored me and pushed me to dream big (my original dream was to become a paralegal, not law school, and definitely not a future clerk on the DC Circuit).
. . .
I feel fortunate that I have been given so many second chances, including the sentence which allowed me to be released at a fairly young age. That doesn’t always happen. 

And there was that thing about grace.  Which, frankly, didn't catch my eye at the time, as it did when Liptak quoted it today.  If you're even a semi-regular reader of this blog, you know that grace is something I take seriously, even if I don't believe in a god who can deliver it when she likes.

I usually talk about grace (and its companion, mercy) in the context of the death penalty.  Offering the condemned grace and mercy isn't about them, I say.  It's not something they earn.  Not something that can be earned, really.  Grace and mercy are gifts, not rewards.  As gifts, they reflect on the giver, they say something (quite a lot, actually) about the kind of people we are.

What I don't so often do is reflect on what you might think of as grace's first cousin.  The great detective novelist, Raymond Chandler, in The Simple Art of Murder, his 1950 essay on writing crime fiction, said
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.
The thing is, the artist can control for it, can build it in.  In life, it's tougher.  But when we give the gifts of grace and mercy, we give possibility.  And with possibility can come redemption.  It is, as I suggested, the first cousin of grace.  And the reward we receive for our generosity, our gift.

Richard Kopf, the judge, listened to Shon Hopwood's promise to turn his life around.  He knew better, knew it was likely bullshit, more of the same that he'd heard for years from the about-to-be-sentenced when they beg for leniency.  Liptak quoted his response.
We’ll know in about 13 years if you mean what you say.
It turns out that he did mean it.  More, he did it.

There are, of course, those who will not forgive.  He did a bad thing, they say, he must forever be tortured, banished, made to roam the streets as a mendicant, forced to steal to survive so we can send him back to prison and ensure he'll never be out again.  They don't believe in expiation.  Only punishment.  The flames of hell, and whatever we can do to emulate those flames here.

For them, Shon Hopwood is no model.  He had a chance he didn't deserve and therefore should not have had.  

But just desserts doesn't quite cover the landscape.

There's also that dollop of grace.

And then redemption.

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