(St. Louis Public Radio) - Since the spring of 2019, WNBA All-Star Maya Moore has not missed a single one of Missouri state inmate Jonathan Irons’ court hearings.
Last Monday was no different. Moore, a two-time Olympic Gold medalist and Minnesota Lynx forward, was among family and friends in a Cole County courtroom when Judge Daniel Green overturned Irons’ conviction for lack of evidence.
“[It] was just so satisfying to know that someone who has the power to do something about it actually took that step to do it,” Moore said in an interview one day after the decision. “So we were overjoyed, but also still sad because Jonathan is still in prison.”
Irons, who is now 40, has been in prison for 23 years. In 1997, he was arrested for burglary and assault in St. Charles County. The victim was shot in the head.
Irons — only 16 at the time — was tried as an adult for the alleged crime. During the trial, the victim said Irons shot him and burglarized his home. The state did not present any physical evidence that would have linked Irons to the shooting or home invasion. Neither Irons' blood nor his DNA were found on the scene, there were no eyewitnesses to the crime, and his finger and footprints were missing. The St. Louis native was later found guilty by an all-white jury. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Moore, 30, first learned of Irons’ case in 2003, through her godparents and her great-uncle, who had been working with Irons in a prison ministry. Moore said her godparents were heavily invested in Irons’ life and his case, and wanted to teach her about the criminal justice system and how it treats people of color.
The Jefferson City native said she didn’t know anyone who was in prison growing up and she had no idea of any of their struggles.
“When I met Jonathan, I was 17, my eyes were open and my mind was blown to the reality of there are people in prison who shouldn't be there,” Moore said.
Throughout college and her eight-year career with the Lynx, the four-time WNBA champion stayed abreast of Irons' case, and soon he became like family to her.
In January 2019, she announced that she would sit out the basketball season to work on a few personal goals and focus on freeing Irons and establishing his innocence. She did the same thing this season, and will also forfeit her chance to play in this year's Olympic games.
Though Irons’ conviction has been reversed, he is still behind bars at Jefferson City Correctional Facility. Green granted St. Charles County prosecutors 30 days to decide to retry the case and gave the Missouri Attorney General’s office 15 days to file an appeal.
Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s spokesman said he and his team are reviewing the order from Green and evaluating the office’s next steps.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke to Moore in Jefferson City the day after Irons' case was overturned. The two discussed why she is so passionate about criminal justice reform, why Irons’ case was so important to her and what comes next.
Andrea Henderson: Jonathan’s case was overturned, but there is still work to be done in order to get him released. What’s holding him back from going home?
Maya Moore: Right now, the only thing keeping him from walking out of those doors is the attorney general's office. They have to say that they are not going to refute the judge's ruling. And then the prosecutor's office in St. Charles County has to also say that they're not going to prosecute. And so we are just hopeful that those people who are in charge of justice are not just about making the guilty ones pay justice, but exonerating the innocent ones.
Henderson: Will you be there the day Jonathan gets released?
Moore: I better be. No matter what I'm doing or where I'm at, I want to be there. I've never been there for someone who's walked out of prison after being wrongfully convicted, but I can just imagine how sweet and just satisfying that moment will be and to be able to just to continue to support and then walk with him and to tell a story.
Henderson: Were some of the inconsistencies in the case the reason why you wanted to sit out two WNBA seasons? Or, was it something else?
Moore: My decision to step away from the game of basketball is bigger than Jonathan's case. And I've tried to communicate that from the beginning, when I made my announcement back in 2019. I really felt like I needed to shift my priorities to spend more time with family, to prioritize the ministry passions that I have at the forefront right now — and that’s criminal justice reform. I want to try to help people see some of the things that I've learned. Jonathan and I are both African Americans, but he comes from a socioeconomic situation that I don't come from. I come from a pretty comfortable middle-class, single-parent home. I didn't know about his life, and all these years later, it's turned into this really inspiring story where we are really close to getting justice for him.
Henderson: Do you believe that race played a role in the charges and the sentence that Jonathan was given in 1997?
Moore: Ultimately, there's no way to know because the men involved in Jonathan's wrongful conviction are actually deceased now. And so we will ultimately never know. But I think at this point in our country's history, everybody is aware of the ugly past, that we have it in our foundations. We have a mix of some really resilient things and some really ugly things here in the United States. And American slavery is a unique beast that still has a great impact on who we are today, how we see each other and the injustices of our past. But telling the truth has to be number one. And so for the longest, the truth wasn't being told in Jonathan's situation.
Henderson: Did this case shine a light on the racial disparities that are in the criminal justice system for you?
Moore: Absolutely. I think first, I learned a lot from Jonathan, like what he's seen and what goes on in his life behind bars in Jefferson City Correctional Center. But then I've also educated myself with resources like the Equal Justice Initiative with Brian Stevenson, books like "the New Jim Crow" and documentaries like "13th." I think looking into these situations and educating myself about how our criminal justice system disproportionately affects black and brown bodies has broken my heart, but I feel more human. I feel like I'm seeing humanity more deeply, caring more deeply and being more humble. So it's a hard thing to look at, but there's hope. There's something we can do, and there's healing and families can be restored. And so, so many people have been inspired just already from our story, and that keeps me going to the future.
Henderson: Do you see yourself taking on other cases like Jonathan's?
Moore: That's a good question. You know, it's hard to say right now just because Jonathan's case is so big, it's so egregious that for the time he served, the age he was, the way he was buried, the lies that were told. It's just really hard to take in and to carry knowing that every day he's in there. His life is on the line. And so I don't want to be arrogant to say, ‘Yeah, we're gonna take on another case.' The minute he's home, we're gonna need some time to breathe, but I also want to equip and empower other people to get involved. You can pay attention to the values of our prosecutors instead of just only caring about who the president is. You can vote better. You can hold prosecutors accountable. You can care about conviction, integrity units in prosecutors offices that help prevent these things from happening. You can educate yourself. You can learn about our past.
Henderson: I read where you said that Jonathan's case was like answering a call from God. Do you believe that it was your faith that brought you to where you are now when it comes to Jonathan's case?
Moore: Absolutely. I think a call from God can be kind of a vague description. What does that even mean in our day and age? But when I get the opportunity to share with people my motivation, it's absolutely grounded and rooted in my faith and my belief in God, walking with Jesus and keeping my eyes fixed on Christ, who gives me the perspective and the motivation. So, moving into Jonathan's story was just a gradual natural outflow of where I'm grounded and where my family's grounded.
Henderson: There's been some criticism around athletes and social justice issues. Some say that athletes who just stay in their place. What are your thoughts on that?
Moore: Yeah, it's tough. I get it. Sports in our culture is one of the most unifying common places that people just go to, just relax, to be entertained, to cheer, to root for something and to kind of escape. So, I get that there's a place where you just kind of want escape and forget the worries of the world, but athletes are human beings, we're people and we're citizens. And the diversity that you see in sports is really, really cool. But with diversity comes stories that you might not have been exposed to in your comfortable place.
Henderson: And you have a platform, too.
Moore: And you have a platform to speak up for those who don't have a voice. I just say, 'Athletes, if you're going to use your voice for things, then you do it with integrity, you do it with poise and humility and really learn and be committed to the causes.'
Henderson: What would you say your next step is? Will you be doing more work in the criminal justice field, are you retiring or will you come back to the court?
Moore: I'm still in this, the second year away. There's a lot going on in my life right now, and I am looking forward to actually getting some time to rest this last year. We've been grinding. But at the same time, I want to continue to tell Jonathan's story and help him tell his story, because there's so much more that people need to hear about. There are some things that I think can benefit us as a society to hear in Jonathan's story and in his plight. So, helping people and giving people an opportunity to get involved is something that I care about and that I want to do. We'll see what the future looks like.
Henderson: Have you spoken with any of your teammates since the big win for Jonathan?
Moore: It's been overwhelming. I had over 100 texts yesterday of people just from the NBA world, from the WNBA world, from my church family to friends and family, and they are just really excited. I think we represent so many people because we carry this story, and I'm just excited that people care. I'm grateful that my basketball family are like members of my family, and even though I'm not there on the court, they care about me as a person. And I do feel really, really loved and seen by the support I've received from my basketball family.
Henderson: Why is criminal justice reform so important to you?
Moore: Criminal justice reform is important to me because people are important. This isn't something that is optional, because I have a really high view of humanity. I see people as very valuable, made in the image of God in every single life matters. If there are a group of people like I mentioned earlier — the ones that don't have as much financial means, the ones who are marginalized, [who] are coming from the history of our country that we come from — then it's very clear of the challenges that our our country comes from in bringing justice for black and brown bodies. Criminal justice is one of the most devastating ways that you see injustice in our country. And so there's no reason in the land of the free and home of the brave that we should have the highest prison percentage in the world. Being an Olympian traveled all around the world representing the U.S., having gold medals put around my neck, singing our National Anthem and knowing that we house the most criminals in the world. It just doesn't make sense in my mind. This has to stop. This has to change.
Republished with permission of St. Louis Public Radio: https://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/wnba-star-maya-moores-sacrifice-helps-st-louis-man-get-closer-exoneration