Professor Shon Hopwood and Matthew Charles: On Sentences and Second Chances

February 8, 2019

Professor Shon Hopwood and his former client, Matthew Charles, celebrate at Georgetown Law on February 6, the day after Charles was recognized by President Donald Trump at the State of the Union Address.

In the spring of 2018, Professor Shon Hopwood was driving through Tennessee to visit a client when the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) — a nonprofit working towards criminal justice reform — asked him to reach out to a man named Matthew Charles.

Sentenced in 1996 to 35 years for selling cocaine and firearms offenses, Charles served 21 years before being released in 2016. Charles rebuilt his life — only to be sent back to prison in 2018 after a judge determined that the release was improper.

The return of this 51-year-old Nashville churchgoer and soup kitchen volunteer to jail, to serve the final nine years of a 35-year sentence, caused a public outcry of which Hopwood was well aware. So Hopwood stepped up and became Matthew Charles’s pro bono lawyer.

“It didn’t take long to realize that I was probably the right person for this,” said Hopwood, who rebuilt his own life as an outstanding student of the law — and now, a Georgetown Law professor — after serving 12 years in federal prison as a young man. “It [was] hard for me to say no when an injustice like this is staring me in the face. I want others to experience the second chances that I’ve been given.”

As spring turned to summer, Hopwood filed a clemency petition for his client. He thought he had a good chance of getting Matthew Charles freed. Hopwood’s research assistants, Margo Rusconi (L’19) and Tiffany Trump (L’20), helped work on Charles’s case.

As summer turned to fall, Hopwood was also coordinating with FAMM, the White House and legislators on the Hill to advocate for a bipartisan federal prison reform bill that would help former federal prisoners reenter society and modify sentences for certain offenses.

But even Hopwood could not have envisioned the outcome. The First Step Act was signed by President Donald Trump on December 21, 2018. Matthew Charles was lawfully resentenced to time served and released from prison on January 3, 2019 — the first person to be released under the First Step Act.

On February 5, Matthew Charles was the guest of the president at the State of the Union Address.

“My administration worked closely with members of both parties to sign the First Step Act into law…,” President Trump said in the address. “This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community. The First Step Act gives non-violent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, states across the country are following our lead. America is a nation that believes in redemption.”

The president noted that while in prison, Charles completed more than 30 Bible studies, worked in the prison law library and mentored many of his fellow inmates. “Now, Matthew is the very first person to be released from prison under the First Step Act…,” the president said. “Thank you, Matthew. Welcome home.”

Welcome to Georgetown

Visiting his former lawyer at Georgetown Law the next day, Charles said that sitting in the president’s box during the State of the Union Address “was an experience that I could have not have even imagined, ever.”

The pair told Matthew’s story in a Facebook Live conversation.

“[This was] not the same man who went to prison, [he had] changed,” Hopwood said, noting that many others, including the sentencing judges, felt Charles had a compelling clemency case. “We advocated for Matthew. We were thinking that the president might grant him clemency like he did with Alice Marie Johnson… We [told] Matthew’s story all last fall in advocating for the First Step Act — even though it was not at the forefront of my mind that [he] would be one of the first people to benefit from that.”

After the legislation passed, Charles’s federal defenders alerted Hopwood that they planned to file a motion under the statute to get their client resentenced. The motion was filed and the government conceded, agreeing that Charles should receive time served due to his record of rehabilitation.

In the video, Charles and Hopwood discussed the need for further criminal justice reform. “It’s an exciting time to be in this advocacy space,” Hopwood said, noting that it is the inspiring stories of people like Matthew Charles (and, we might add, Professor Shon Hopwood) that resonate with others.

While he’s not contemplating law school like his former lawyer, Charles has a new job as a spokesman for FAMM, in addition to doing media interviews.

The message that he wants people to take away from his story?

“There’s still a need for more criminal justice reform, but also that second chances will be available…for those that deserve a second chance,” Charles said. “Mistakes are made on many different levels, no matter what the crime may be. [To spend] 22 years of federal incarceration for some people have changed, I think they do deserve a second look, or a second chance…I want to try to be a voice to ensure that the possibility of getting one is available. ”

Hopwood noted that while it is in everyone’s best interest for prisoners to be rehabilitated, there are too many bad outcomes at present. “If we are sending people to prison and making them worse rather than better, that is going to impact all of us.”