WNBA star Maya Moore helps free innocent man from prison

Jason Owens

In 2019, Maya Moore put her WNBA career on hold to help the case of a man she believed had been wrongfully imprisoned.

The six-time All-Star sat out the entire 2019 season to focus her life on helping Jonathan Irons, a Black man who had served more than 20 years of a 50-year prison sentence handed down when he was 18 years old.

In January, she announced plans to sit out a second season and skip the Tokyo Olympics before they were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, Moore visited Missouri’s Jefferson City Correctional Center alongside her family and other supporters. There she met Irons, now 40, as he walked outside the prison doors a free man. Moore dropped to her knees before embracing the man whose freedom she had worked to secure. She then jumped up and down in celebration before Irons made a statement.

‘I feel like I can live life now’

“I feel like I can live life now,” Irons said. “I’m free, I’m blessed. I just want to live my life worthy of God’s help and influence. ... I thank everybody who supported me — Maya and her family and just to be home, to have somewhere to be home.”

He then put on a face mask made by friends in prison with the word “hope” written across the front.

“It says hope,” Irons continued. “Because they need that. The things that they’re doing in prison to try to make positive changes.”

Irons’ court case

Irons was convicted in 1998 in a burglary that resulted in the victim being shot inside his own home. The victim Stanley Stotler was a 38-year-old white man living alone in a St. Louis suburb when the incident occurred. Stotler was shot in the right arm and right temple, but survived.

Irons was was arrested on burglary and assault charges. According to records obtained by the New York Times, Stotler initially failed to identify Irons in a photo lineup. When instructed to make a guess by a police officer, he identified a photo of Irons.

Stotler later identified Irons in court. Irons was tried as an adult despite being 16 years old at the time. There were no fingerprints, DNA or blood evidence implicating Irons. Nor were there any corroborating witnesses, according to the Times.

Convicted by an all-white jury

According to prosecutors, a police officer said that Irons confessed to the crime during interrogation. The officer did not have video or audio recordings of the alleged confession and said that he threw away his notes from the interrogation. Irons denied making the confession, according to the Times.

Irons was eventually convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to 50 years in prison. While in prison, Irons declined to seek parole because it meant he would have to confess to committing the crime, the Times reports.

Moore didn’t initially mention Irons when she announced her WNBA hiatus, instead declaring that she intended to invest her “time in some ministry dreams that have been stirring in my heart for many years.”

The man whom Maya Moore helped with a wrongful conviction walked away from prison a free man on Wednesday and met the WNBA star on his way out. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
The man whom Maya Moore helped with a wrongful conviction walked away from prison a free man on Wednesday and met the WNBA star on his way out. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

In practice, she was working to raise money to hire respected defense attorney Kent Gipson to work on Irons’ case.

Judge: ‘very weak and circumstantial’

On March 9, Missouri judge Daniel Green overturned Irons’ conviction, writing that the case against him was “very weak and circumstantial at best.”

Green’s order did not immediately free Irons. It allowed for prosecutors to argue to keep Irons in prison with the right to appeal the decision. The office of the Missouri attorney general exercised that right.

A pair of appeals failed, according to the Times, before the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear prosecutors’ arguments.

On Wednesday, St. Charles County lead prosecutor Tim Lohmar declined to retry the case, a decision that set Irons free.

Will Moore, 31 and the 2014 WNBA MVP, return to basketball now that Irons has his freedom?

That’s not yet clear. Moore had more important matters to attend on Wednesday.

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