At a Cole County Court room on Wednesday, Jonathan Irons walked in wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and shackles. In the first row for citizens to sit in was WNBA star Maya Moore. For more than a decade, Irons and Moore have been friends and Moore’s Jefferson City family has been in Irons’ life for nearly 20 years.
Moore, who was born in Jefferson City, says no physical evidence links Irons to a 1997 burglary in which shots were fired, seriously injuring an O’Fallon homeowner in the head. Moore, who has played eight seasons for the Minnesota Lynx, has sidelined the game in part to try and free Irons.
The African-American man of eastern Missouri’s Wentzville was 16 years old when the crime was committed. Irons is serving 50 years in prison after being convicted by an all-white jury in 1998 for first-degree assault and armed criminal action.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Irons broke out in tears – something Moore says was hard to watch.
“There’s a lot of emotions,” she says. “I think number one of just being heartbroken that we can’t console him as part of our family. Number two, happy for him that the truth is finally being told officially on the record of the fingerprint evidence.”
Moore says the hearing was one step in the process.
“But it’s a big step to finally have the truth be told in this context was really rewarding to finally let Jonathan share his side of the story. It’s just hard to see why the wind can’t come more swiftly for justice in this situation,” Moore says.
Several witnesses were called to the stand on behalf of Irons to testify about their knowledge of any potential police bias in the 1997 case. Reginald Williams, a friend of Irons, testified that he obtained from the O’Fallon Police Department’s evidence files a document detailing a second fingerprint pulled from the only door to the burglarized home. He said the paperwork was not included in files for the trial – something that Moore said was hidden under a rock for all these years.
Cole County Judge Daniel Green is expected to agree to a request in the works to have the mystery fingerprint checked for a potential match. Irons’ attorneys think the print could have changed the outcome of their client’s case. His lawyers are also asking the judge to reopen the case that’s receiving national attention.
A licensed investigator, Kevin McClain, also took the stand to discuss details of a blog headed by the lead police detective in the case. The blog included personal accounts of what McClain considered to be police misconduct. The detective in the case, Michael Hanlen, was ill during the trial and has since died.
Another witness, Dr. James Lampinen of the University of Arkansas, is an expert on memory and face perception in legal settings. His overall testimony was that photo bias was used in the lineup procedures and the human memory of facial qualities quickly declines, especially in traumatic situations. Lampinen said the police tactics “suggested” that the suspect was in the photo and physical lineups and resulted in the eyewitness guessing the identity of the suspect.
Irons, who is doing time at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, also took the witness stand during the hearing and maintained his innocence. It was the first time he was able to testify in his case. At 16 years old, his public defender did not want him to take the stand in fear that the prosecution would twist his words.
Irons said after he was arrested for the crime, he was questioned without a lawyer or guardian. None of his conversations with police were recorded. His case revolved around the claims made by Hanlen.
The prosecution argued during the trial that Irons was seen the day of the burglary with a gun in the neighborhood where the crime happened. Irons said he had several friends he often visited in the area.
The police investigation uncovered a .25-caliber handgun being used during the crime. Irons testified that he did not have such a gun, but instead a .380 pistol that he later threw into a river.
More than 70,000 petition signatures have been collected that call for a fair trial for Irons. Moore has launched a non-profit inspired by him. Win With Justice educates people about “the power that prosecutors have in maintaining and expanding mass incarceration.”
“I just want to be there for my family first and foremost and keeping us anchored in just our faith and also wanting to use my platform as best I can to continue to give Jonathan and Jonathans out there a voice and to just encourage us as a community to be as best we can in our criminal justice system with leadership positions like prosecutors.”
As far as returning to the game goes, Moore says she’s sticking to her previous statement of reassessing her thoughts next spring. Moore, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time NCAA champion and four-time WNBA titlist, has been called the greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball by Sports Illustrated.
A crew from ESPN and a documentary team from Los Angeles were also in the court room to report on the case.
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