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Robber's redemption behind bars makes for worthy memoir

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THE story of a convicted bank robber who becomes a supremely (both figuratively, and literally, as in U.S. Supreme Court) successful jailhouse lawyer, finds God and wins the girl of his dreams sounds like a Disneyesque feel-good movie.

But that's Shon Hopwood's life in a nutshell.

And despite the seemingly hackneyed plot line, his life makes for a compelling memoir.

In 1997 the 23-year-old ex-high school basketball star and discharged navy veteran from a respected rural-Nebraska family pulled five armed bank robberies near his home town. Caught and convicted, he was sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.

Much of this memoir's success can be chalked up to Hopwood's distinctive voice and quietly beguiling character.

He also deftly integrates his portrait of prison life with eminently readable explanations of American constitutional law. (If you've ever wondered what all those television cop shows are going on about when characters jabber about Fifth and Six Amendment rights and Miranda warnings, this book is a reader-friendly primer on Yankee criminal law.)

He initially survived prison gangs and prison violence because of his prowess on the basketball court. But it was a serendipitous transfer from a job in the prison kitchen to its law library that proved his salvation.

Hopwood soon discovered a knack for the law. By the time his sentence was up he'd earned a reputation for appellate advocacy that saw his briefs argued before the U.S.'s highest court.

Hopwood was never a violent guy. His shtick, and his downfall, was excess -- too much booze, pot and partying, and ever needing more money to propel his downward spiral.

Even when pulling bank heists he was a directionless goof of a man-child, simply unable to discipline himself enough to build a life.

To his credit, Hopwood doesn't moralize a lot, despite his belated conversion to Christianity.

But he rightly disdains pop culture's quasi-idolization of tough-guy prisoners.

There's nothing "cool" about being incarcerated, he underlines, and anyone who even for a moment buys into that notion will fast encounter the harsh truth about America's mean and overcrowded prisons.

The memoir is largely apolitical.

Hopwood soft-pedals his criticisms of the U.S. penal system. Not because he's heedless of its dysfunctionality, but because his admitted focus is redemption (his), not protest or reform.

His story is subtly emotional. And its resolution, though solidly told, holds few surprises. (Hopwood ends up in law school. By book's end he's a student at the University of Washington law school.)

As a memoir, it's that happy, but too rare, hybrid -- thoughtful, but also easy to read.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Law Man

By Shon Hopwood, with Dennis Burke

Crown, 308 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 J9

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