A Missouri inmate whose appeal of his 50-year sentence for burglary and assault has been backed by the W.N.B.A. star Maya Moore had his conviction overturned by a state judge on Monday.
Before a packed courtroom in Jefferson City, Judge Daniel Green capped months of review by issuing a ruling that ordered Jonathan Irons’s guilty verdict be vacated, and that he be released from the maximum security prison where he has been behind bars for the last 23 years.
Sitting in the front row, and surrounded by nearly 20 members of her family and friends, tears welled in Moore’s eyes. “It felt so surreal,” she said, describing the moment in a brief interview shortly after the hearing was over. “We finally have justice. I was just thinking, ‘Did this really happen? Did it?’”
Moore — who in early 2019 stunned the basketball world by announcing a hiatus from her career in large part to help Irons — was quick to note that the case is not over. The Missouri attorney general’s office and prosecutors in St. Charles County, where the crime took place, now have roughly 45 days to decide whether to appeal or retry the case. In that time, Irons’s lawyer will seek to have him released on bond.
The Missouri Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the case.
Whenever he gets out, Moore plans to be there. In January, the 30-year-old star of the Minnesota Lynx, one of the best players in basketball, announced that she was extending her leave from the game for at least another year, skipping another season for the Lynx and a chance to play in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
She reiterated Monday that she did not regret taking a break from basketball. “It is so sweet to see the redemption that came from stepping away and giving what I had to this case,” Moore said. “It feels like we are holding up that Final Four trophy, but there are still a couple of steps.”
Irons, now 39, grew close to members of Moore’s family through their volunteer prison work and ministry in the early 2000s. Moore met Irons in 2007, when she was about to begin what would be a stellar career at Connecticut, where she led her team to a pair of N.C.A.A. titles.
The two have been close friends ever since and share a sibling-like bond. Moore began speaking out for Irons’s release over the last several years.
Irons, born into severe poverty, was 16 when the crime for which he was convicted occurred. He was prosecuted for burglarizing a home in a St. Louis suburb and assaulting the homeowner with a gun. There were no corroborating witnesses, fingerprints, DNA, or blood evidence connecting Irons to the crime. Prosecutors claimed that Irons admitted to breaking into the victim’s home. Irons and his lawyers denied any such admission. The officer who interrogated Irons did so alone and failed to record the conversation.
Irons, who is African-American, was tried as an adult and found guilty by an all-white jury.
Judge Green’s decision Monday hinged on fingerprint evidence that had not been divulged by prosecutors in Irons’ initial trial. The fingerprints, found inside a door that would have been used to exit the house, did not belong to Irons or to the crime’s victim. Kent Gipson, Irons’s lawyer, argued that the state had withheld that evidence, which could have shown someone else was responsible for the crime.
Speaking over the phone from prison, Irons said he began crying, jumping and shouting as soon as he’d heard the news. “It feels like I can just breathe, like the weight of the world is off of me, like I have the chance to live life.”
Asked about Moore, he was succinct: “She saved my life. I would not have this chance if not for her and her wonderful family. She saved my life and I cannot say it better than that.”