Jailhouse lawyers represent themselves and other people who are in prison after they have been tried, convicted, and sentenced. Once you are locked up behind bars, you no longer have the right to a free defense attorney or public defender provided by the state. Most jailhouse lawyers are free.
Jailhouse lawyers, for the most part are inmates who practice the law – primarily criminal defense, for obvious reasons – for themselves and for others in difficult predicaments. Shon R. Hopwood, is one such jailhouse attorney, now a free man. He was convicted of five robberies in rural Nebraska back in the nineties, sentenced to more than a decade in federal prison.
Studying Law in the Prison Library Paid Off
Hopwood focused much of his prison time in the prison law library. Interestingly, he has been far more effective as a jailhouse attorney than as a bank robber. In fact, he is most well known for successfully petitioning the Supreme Court to hear an appeal for John Fellers, a fellow inmate in prison.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. This was one of just eight petitions, of over 7,000 filed by prisoners that same year. The Court thankfully ruled wholly in Fellers’ favor! Shon Hopwood has written a book about it, called Law Man.
Supreme Court Hears Case
Hopwood typed up the first Petition for Certiorari, as it is called, or request for the Court to hear the case, on a jail typewriter. Seth P. Waxman, former U.S. solicitor general who has argued some 50 cases before the Supreme Court, said that it was one of the best “Certs” he had ever read.
In fact, Mr. Waxman agreed to take the case without payment on the condition that Shon also worked with him. The two men, solicitor general and prison inmate consulted on all aspects of the case, winning a 9-0 victory that reduced Fellers’ sentence by four years.
Meantime, Shon has been busy. He was granted a second petition that vacated a lower court’s decision and sent the case back to the courts. He has helped inmates throughout the Midwest, including Indiana, Nebraska, and Michigan; get reductions in prison time from three to 10 years.
There are many online resources that offer a guide to becoming a jailhouse lawyer, including the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual.
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