Man Released from Prison After WNBA Star Put Career on Hold to Help Overturn Wrongful Conviction
WNBA star Maya Moore stepped away from her basketball career at the peak of her success to help fight for a man who’d been wrongfully incarcerated for 20 years — and on Wednesday, her efforts came to fruition when that man was finally released.
Moore, 31, shocked the sports world in 2019 when she announced that she was putting her career with the Minnesota Lynx on hold in order to focus, in part, on securing the release of Jonathan Irons, who was serving a 50-year sentence for burglary and assault at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri.
After his conviction was overturned in March, Irons, 40, officially became a free man on Wednesday, and Moore was present to capture his emotional exit, which she later shared in a video on Instagram.
“I feel like I can live life now. I’m free, I’m blessed, I just want to live my life worthy of God’s help and influence,” Irons said in the video. “I thank everybody who supported me- Maya and her family.”
Moore, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, told Good Morning America that watching Irons finally leave the jail for good brought a feeling of relief that at one point even sent her to her knees.
“In that moment, I just really felt like I could rest,” she said. “We’ve been standing for so long, and it was an unplanned moment where I felt relief, and it was kind of a worshipful moment, just dropping to my knees, and just being so thankful that we’d made it.”
She continued, “When I stepped away two springs ago, I just really wanted to shift my priorities to be able to be more available and present to show up for things that I felt were mattering more than being a professional athlete. And so this is obviously one of the biggest and most direct results of that.”
Irons was 16 years old when he was arrested for the nonfatal shooting of a white homeowner named Stanley Stotler during a burglary, despite the fact that no DNA, fingerprints, footprints or any physical evidence ever linked him to the crime.
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Stotler was shot twice during the incident, and Irons has long maintained that he was not there and was misidentified, according to The New York Times.
He was convicted by an all-white jury on burglary and assault charges in 1998, though the judge who later vacated his conviction said there was a series of problems with how the case was handled, the Times reported. Among those issues was the fact that a fingerprint report revealing a print that did not belong to Irons or Stotler was never given to Irons’ defense team.
Moore, a Jefferson City native, reportedly first met Irons in 2007 during a prison ministry visit to his correctional center, and the two forged a friendship.
The four-time WNBA champion announced her hiatus from basketball in 2019, and in September of that year said on Instagram that she was “dedicating [her] life to freeing Jonathan the same way [she] dedicated [her]self to each game in the WNBA.” She later said she would extend her break for a second year.
Moore helped bring attention and awareness to Irons’ case, and she also helped fund the hiring of defense attorney Kent Gipson, the Times reported.
“People don’t want to watch a fixed game, they want to watch a fair game, and so that’s all we’re asking for, in our justice system – let’s be fair,” Moore told GMA.
Irons, meanwhile, told the morning show he was “absolutely elated and thankful” to be free. He said he spent his first night out of prison enjoying pizza with his friends and family.
“There’s a lot to adjust to out here, and I’m going to take it slow,” he said. “I’m surrounded by people I know who love me and have my best interests in mind, so I’m going to listen to them and study and learn all I can.”
Irons said that when he finds time, he hopes to become an advocate for people who are less fortunate and help people with their cases just as Moore did for him.
“There’s so much greater coming in the horizon, and I see it,” he said. “Even in the darkness, I was able to see it. I want people to have hope from this story. ‘Cause we’re in dark times. We’ve got to keep going, we’ve got to keep the faith.”