Jonathan Irons was released from prison in Missouri on Wednesday, after a multiyear campaign spearheaded by WNBA star Maya Moore resulted in his conviction being overturned.
Mr. Irons was convicted of a burglary and assault that happened when he was just 16 years old. He was accused of a burglary and shooting at the home of a white man outside St. Louis. Mr. Irons has insisted he was not there and was misidentified.
In March, a Missouri judge overturned the conviction because prosecutors failed to disclose to the defense that a fingerprint found inside a door that the assailant would have used to leave the house did not match Mr. Irons. That “unassailable forensic evidence,” the court found, would have made a difference to the defense because the State’s case was “very weak and circumstantial at best.”
The Missouri Attorney General’s office appealed the decision unsuccessfully, and on Wednesday, the prosecutor in St. Charles County decided not to retry the case, The New York Times reports.
Maya Moore, her family, and other supporters greeted Mr. Irons, now 40, when he walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
“I feel like I can live life now,” Mr. 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.”
Ms. Moore met Mr. Irons in 2007 through a prison ministry, just before she began playing at the University of Connecticut, where she became one of the most decorated players in women’s college basketball history. She went on to win two Olympic gold medals, four WNBA championships, and a league Most Valuable Player Award for the Minnesota Lynx.
In 2016, she began advocating publicly for changes in the criminal justice system, starting with Mr. Irons’s wrongful conviction. After high-profile police shootings of unarmed Black men, including the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, near where Ms. Moore grew up, she also helped lead the Lynx in one of the first athlete protests for the Black Lives Matter movement. Early last year, she announced she would take time off from the WNBA to help Mr. Irons challenge his case.
Mr. Irons was tried as an adult, even though he was only 16 at the time of the alleged crime. Police interrogated him with no adult present and made no recording of the interrogation, but prosecutors said he admitted that he broke into the home. The State’s only other evidence was an unreliable identification tainted by police misconduct. There was no corroborating witness or physical evidence that tied him to the crime.
At 18, he was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
After meeting Mr. Irons through their prison ministry, Ms. Moore’s godparents worked to secure his freedom. Her godfather, Reggie Williams, helped investigate the case and uncovered the key fingerprint evidence that led the court to overturn Mr. Irons’s conviction. Mr. Irons’s told the Times he initially plans to live with Mr. Williams and his wife in Atlanta, across the street from Maya Moore’s home.
“I hope to be an agent of positive change,” Mr. Irons recently told the Times. “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.”