Maya Moore put her WNBA career on hold for a second year to advocate for the freedom of Jonathan Irons, a man she believed was wrongfully incarcerated. The Minnesota Minx player first took a step back from basketball in 2019 to help Jonathan who was facing a 50-year sentence for an alleged burglary and assault. Prior to setting basketball aside, Maya was the league’s MVP in 2014, had won several international titles, four championships and two Olympic gold medals.
Jonathan, a Missouri native was arrested when he was 16-years-old and tried by an all-white jury for the crime, although there was no DNA or physical evidence connecting him to the case. He was tried as an adult, signifying the startling statistic that 47 percent of the black children in the juvenile prison system are tried as adults. Jonathan served 23 years of the sentence within a maximum-security prison. According to research from Michigan State University, Black people are 50 percent more likely to be innocent of convicted murder and endure longer prison sentences.
However, on March 9, a judge overturned Irons’ 1997 conviction.
Maya discovered Jonathan’s story after attending a meeting for a family member’s prison ministry program. The two met in 2007, at the start of Moore’s career at the University of Connecticut (UConn). There she flourished and carried her team to two NCAA championship titles. But in her personal life, the spark to fight for justice was activated as Jonathan and Maya eventually molded into family, continuing to share a sibling-like bond.
And we saw Maya stand up for justice in 2016, when she, along with her Minx teammates, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus, against the onslaught of police shootings which had killed hundreds of Black men and women.
When she announced her hiatus for a second time this year, her team and coach continued to support her decision as she again continued a full-time fight for Jonathan.
Maya did more than hire attorneys for Jonathan’s case. She used her influence to garner support, bringing attention to Jonathan’s case. She also started an organization called Win With Justice advocated for a fair justice system and shed light on the disparities within it. Since her journey with Jonathan, Maya has become a respected justice system leader dedicated to not only seeking equality, but creating stronger communities.
“She saved my life,” Jonathan said in an interview with the New York Times, after he learned of the judge’s ruling. “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.”
Despite this long-awaited victory it’s important to remember that the fight for Jonathan’s freedom isn’t completely over. The attorney general’s office and prosecutors of the St. Charles County in Missouri, where the crime happened, have about 45 days to appeal.
The ruling to overturn Jonathan’s conviction is nothing short of incredible but it’s also important to recognize the sacrifice and altruism of Maya.
Maya is important because like many Black men and women before her, she’s shown up for those who need it the most. Before Kim Kardashian and the praise she received for work in criminal justice, we had Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, which helps to free wrongfully incarcerated people of color on death row. There is also the Essie Justice Group, which fights to bring incarcerated people home. Last year for Mother’s Day, they lead a charge called #FreeBlackMamas, which bailed out 90 Black mothers over the holiday weekend.
This is no different from LeBron James’ I Promise School, which he built in his Akron, Ohio community, or when Fannie Lou Hamer made her 1964 appeal in front of the Democratic National Committee credential panel for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
When we invest in our communities, whether that be time, publicity, or money, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish.
The five-time all-star skipped another season and a chance to play in the Tokyo summer Olympics, and when asked if she had any regrets, Maya said she had none.
“It is so sweet to see the redemption that came from stepping away and giving what I had to this case,” Moore said according to the Times. “It feels like we are holding up that Final Four trophy, but there are still a couple of steps.”
Within society we constantly ask our Black elites about whether they should help their people, especially when there’s a system in place that hobbles them through policies and unfair treatment. However, Maya’s selflessness is a reminder of how powerful and effective this partnership can be.