Jonathan Irons, whose bid for freedom from a 50-year prison sentence was embraced and pushed by the W.N.B.A. star Maya Moore, walked out of a Missouri penitentiary on Wednesday, nearly four months after a judge overturned his conviction on charges of burglary and assault.
Irons, 40, an African-American man convicted at age 18, was met by Moore, her family, and other supporters who hugged him and cheered outside the Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison off a countryside thruway called No More Victims Road. At one point, Moore sunk to her knees as if in prayerful astonishment.
“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.” He added: “I thank everybody who supported me — Maya and her family.”
Then Irons took his first steps into liberty as an adult.
It was the culmination of a yearslong effort by his supporters to win his freedom, a campaign that factored in a decision by Moore last year to forego playing in the W.N.B.A. at the peak of her success.
In March, a Missouri judge, Daniel Green, vacated Irons’s 1998 conviction in what police said was a burglary and shooting at the home of Stanley Stotler, then 38, a white homeowner who lived alone in O’Fallon, a roughly 45-minute drive from downtown St. Louis. Both Stotler and his assailant were armed, and Stotler was shot twice.
Irons has insisted that he was not there and had been misidentified.
After hearing testimony and a profession of innocence from Irons, who was shackled in the courtroom, Green cited a series of problems with the way the case had been investigated and tried. He focused on a fingerprint report that had not been turned over to Irons’s defense team. The print, found inside a door that would have been used to leave the house, belonged to neither Irons nor Stotler.
Irons’s lawyers said the fingerprint would have supported their contention that someone else had committed the crime. Green agreed that the print would have given Irons’s defense team “unassailable forensic evidence” to support his plea of innocence.
The case against Irons, Green wrote, was “very weak and circumstantial at best.”
In the three and a half months following Green’s overturning of the conviction, lawyers for Attorney General Eric Schmitt of Missouri launched a pair of failed appeals, then were turned away by the state Supreme Court, which left the matter in the hands of Tim Lohmar, the lead prosecutor in St. Charles County, where the crime occurred. He had to decide whether to retry the case.
On Wednesday afternoon, Lohmar declined a retrial.
Moore’s family met Irons through prison ministry. She and Irons were introduced in 2007, during a penitentiary visit shortly before her freshman year at the University of Connecticut, where she became one of the most heralded women’s players in collegiate history. Moore went on to win four W.N.B.A. championships and a league Most Valuable Player Award for the Minnesota Lynx, but she and Irons formed a close, siblinglike bond.
She did not talk publicly about their friendship until 2016, when she began advocating for changes in law enforcement and the legal system. Following a series of police shootings of unarmed Black men — including the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., near where Irons grew up — and the killing of five Dallas officers by a sniper during a protest of police brutality, Moore helped lead the Lynx in one of the first athlete protests for the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice.
Moore, now 31, became a strong voice for prosecutorial changes. In early 2019, she stunned the sports world by announcing she would take a timeout from basketball, in part so she could devote more time and energy to helping Irons mount what they thought would be his final appeal. She used her fame to raise awareness and helped fund the hiring of Kent Gipson, a highly regarded defense attorney based in Kansas City, Mo., to handle Irons’s case.
Court records show that Stotler, the victim of the crime, was shot in the right arm and right temple. Weeks later, he was unable to pick out the assailant from among a lineup of six photos. Instructed by a police officer to give his best guess, Stotler pointed to a picture of Irons, which was slightly larger than the others, and to another photo of a different African-American man.
Stotler later identified Irons as the perpetrator while Irons sat in court — once while Irons was dressed in prison garb and another time while the teenager sat next to his defense lawyer. But there was no corroborating witness to the crime, nor were any fingerprints, DNA or blood evidence implicating Irons presented in court.
Prosecutors said Irons, who was 16 at the time the crime took place, admitted to a police officer that he had broken into Stotler’s home, a claim that Irons steadfastly denied. The officer who interrogated him did so alone and did not make a video or audio recording of the conversation. Asked for his interview notes, the officer said he had thrown them away.
Despite his youth, Irons was tried as an adult. On the advice of his public defender, he did not testify. In a county with few minority residents, he was convicted by an all-white jury and given a sentence that made him ineligible for parole until he was about 60 years old.
Throughout his time in prison, Irons — a religious man who educated himself behind bars and earned commendations from prison administration — said he would never agree to parole, because it would require him to admit guilt when he had done nothing wrong.
Moore, an evangelical Christian who has spent much of the last year ministering in Atlanta and connecting with her church and family, continues to say she has no plans to return to basketball anytime soon. In January, she announced she was extending her hiatus for a second year, partly to continue helping Irons. That decision meant she would miss not only a second W.N.B.A. season, now set to start in late July after being postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but a chance to win a third straight gold medal in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, which were moved to 2021.
During a recent telephone interview from prison, Irons said he initially planned to live with Moore’s godparents in Atlanta, across the street from her home. Moore’s godfather, Reggie Williams, had worked in his spare time to investigate Irons’s case and uncovered the key fingerprint evidence.
“I hope to be an agent of positive change,” Irons said in the interview. “I want to encourage and inspire people and share my story with anyone who will listen. I want to be an advocate, part of the conversation going forward, for justice and police reform.”
Asked about Stotler, Irons did not hesitate.
“He was a victim twice,” Irons said. “A victim once by the person who burglarized his home and assaulted him. And he was a victim of the police who manipulated him into identifying me.”
“I would extend my hand in peace to him. I want to dialogue with him. If he wanted to go for dinner, I would start there.”