The Innocence Project reports that approximately 1% of US prisoners were falsely convicted. One of those many people was Jonathan Irons. Basketball superstar Maya Moore met Jonathan more than a decade ago while he was still incarcerated. Something about him touched Maya’s heart, and she spent years fighting for his freedom. Though it was an incredibly difficult journey, the pair changed one another’s lives for the better. Read on for more about their uniquely beautiful love story.
They Met When She Was 18
Before Maya became a major league basketball player, she was a teenager looking to get involved in her community in a positive way. The 18-year-old Maya was part of a prison ministry program.
It was through this outreach program that she met Jonathan Irons. Then 27-years-old, Jonathan had been incarcerated for 11 years at the time. As their friendship blossomed, Maya became aware of how much Jonathan stood out among the rest. Eventually, his story inspired her to make a change.
Becoming A WNBA Star
At the age of 22, Maya made it big by landing a spot on the Minnesota Lynx pro basketball team. That same year she earned her first of four WNBA championships, and in 2014 she won the award for Most Valuable Player.
Her fanbase grew even larger when she joined Ros Casares Valencia in 2011 and helped earn the team their first Euroleague championship. She also played in a Chinese club from 2012 until 2015, making her an international star.
Using Her Fame For Good
Maya’s early success drew her into the limelight, giving her a platform to reach massive audiences. The young star was very aware of how she could use the attention of others to promote her favorite organizations.
One of the ways she did this was by becoming an ambassador for UNICEF Kid Power. She also became an advocate for the End it Movement, which seeks to put a stop to modern slavery. This passion led her to pushing for reform in America’s justice system, especially when she met Jonathan.
Having A Heart For A Prisoner
Though Maya was only 18 when she met Jonathan, who is nine years her senior, she was old enough to want to help him. Not only did the basketball star feel a connection to the young man, but so did her entire family.
Maya told The Nation that her family felt compassion for Jonathan, especially as they got to know him better and became aware of his heartbreaking story. His situation filled the family with outrage to the point that they had to intervene.
Convicted At 16
Jonathan Irons was convicted at just 16-years-old for a crime he knew he didn’t commit. He was accused of being responsible for a burglary and shooting at the home of Stanley Stotler, who was 38-years-old at the time.
Since the crime was such a serious one, he was tried as an adult. Jonathan felt he was incorrectly pickup out during a lineup, but that would be enough to put an innocent young man in jail. They had to go through a trial first.
The Jury Didn’t Buy That He Was Innocent
Though Jonathan was very young at the time, the judge and jury analyzed his actions as though they were committed by an adult. The lineup and the age difference shouldn’t have mattered, because Jonathan knew he wasn’t at fault.
Furthermore, there was no physical evidence connecting him to the home invasion. Despite this, the all-white jury handed the young black man a 65-year sentence. Jonathan saw his entire future get swept away two years before even becoming a legal adult.
He Was A Part Of Maya’s Church Choir
Maya’s family was bound to hear about Jonathan’s case. Not only was Maya involved in a ministry program that reaches out to the incarcerated, but she also went to the church where Jonathan sang.
Before Jonathan’s conviction, he had been a part of a youth choir led by Maya’s father! Though it took a decade, the family eventually made the connection and realized just how much they had in common with the kindhearted young man.
Keeping His Head High
Being wrongfully convicted as a teen and having to spend the rest of your life in prison would be enough for anyone to go crazy. The most remarkable thing about Jonathan was that he responded to his situation with incredible strength.
Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he used the opportunity to be the “light” of his situation, as Maya put it in an interview with The Nation. Relying heavily on his faith, Jonathan somehow managed to not be overcome by his circumstances.
Jonathan’s Personality Highlighted The Injustice
It didn’t take long after meeting Jonathan for Maya to realize that he was telling the truth about being innocent. Between the lack of evidence and who he was as a person, the judgment didn’t make any sense.
She said, “The more we got to know him, the more outrage our family started to feel, especially seeing what an awesome person he is despite his circumstances and how he’s grown and the things he’s trying to do to fight for himself and continue to be a light where he is.”
A Growing Friendship
Though Maya and Jonathan are now married, they didn’t always have a romantic relationship. The pair took their time getting to know one another, and were first and foremost great friends.
Maya told Good Morning America that their feelings for one another surfaced gradually over time. With all of the hardship they were experiencing during the legal battle, it would have been overwhelming to jump into a serious commitment. Plus, Jonathan had worries of his own.
He Was Worried She Would Forget All About Him
Being that the justice system seemed to have failed and then forgotten all about Jonathan, it’s only natural that he expected Maya to eventually move on. At the time they met, she had just begun her college career and was succeeding on the UConn team.
As the years progressed, Maya earned herself the title of being one of the greatest winners in the history of women’s basketball, according to Sports Illustrated. As the years went on, Maya’s commitment to helping Jonathan only grew stronger.
Maya Was Sure To Visit Jonathan When She Could
Maya put Jonathan’s fears to rest by continuing to visit him whenever she returned home from college. Even when she wasn’t around, Maya would still send him books and letters so that they could keep in touch.
While Jonathan was trying to be the light in his prison, Maya was becoming his light. Despite the hard times, he started to know that he could count on her. What Jonathan didn’t know was just what an immense influence she would be on his future.
Maya Decided It Was Time To Fight For Jonathan’s Freedom
As much as Maya already proved she was a loyal companion to Jonathan, nothing could compare to the day she decided to take the reins in his legal battle. After years of witnessing Jonathan behind bars, the athlete was fed up.
She decided to do whatever she could to make sure that Jonathan was set free and that his record was cleared. Maya even started a website in his honor to get the word out about his story.
Taking A Step Back From Her Career
Perhaps the most significant act of selflessness that Maya exhibited during her years of friendship with Jonathan was when she decided to step back from her career. After eight successful years in the WNBA, Maya went on sabbatical to help Jonathan full time.
She started the social action campaign Win With Justice to explain Jonathan’s story to others and give her fans a way to help. The athlete created a petition and managed to file an appeal to get Jonathan out of prison.
He Knew She Was The One, But Wanted To Wait
Through the long and painful process, Jonathan became aware that Maya was the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Still, he didn’t want to tie her down while he was still incarcerated.
He told Good Morning America, “I didn’t want her to feel trapped and I wanted her to feel open and have the ability any time if this is too much for you, go and find somebody. Live your life. Because this is hard.”
Jonathan Was Released And Charges Were Dropped!
Thanks to Maya’s hard work, a Missouri judged finally re-evaluated Jonathan’s case and overturned his conviction! After 23 years in prison, Jonathan was at last a free man.
Not only did the judge discover that there was no evidence proving Jonathan’s guilt, but he also found that there was a fingerprint report that ensured the man was innocent! This fact made it 100% clear that Jonathan had been telling the truth all along, and that he was wrongly picked out in the lineup.
Finally Able To Pop The Question
Maya acted out of selfless love by halting her career for Jonathan, and he did the same by not wanting to hold her back with any commitments while he was in prison. It was clear that the two had formed a strong bond that would stand the test of time.
Once Jonathan was free, he had nothing holding him back. He didn’t waste any time. Jonathan and Maya were in a hotel room with some friends the day he was let out, and he got down on his knee and asked the question he’d been waiting to voice.
Getting Married In A Pandemic
Though the coronavirus made 2020 a struggle for many, Jonathan and Maya brought some positivity to the revolutionary year. Not only did Jonathan get his case overturned and make it out of prison, but the couple also celebrated their wedding just months later.
They had their guests social distance to adhere to pandemic guidelines, but otherwise, the wedding was just as they had hoped. Their dreams had officially come true, and they could finally team up to continue to make an impact on the world.
Continuing The Fight For Justice
Though Maya’s basketball career is far from over, she’s been soaking in the much-needed time with her husband. After all the years of battling for justice, Maya and Jonathan finally get to enjoy life together.
Still, they aren’t done making moves and advocating for the rights of others. Through Maya’s Win With Justice campaign, the couple is educating the public and encouraging everyone to vote, even at the local level. There’s also talk of a documentary coming out about the couple’s incredible story.
A Role Model In So Many Ways
Maya was already an incredible role model in that she is a majorly successful athlete, proving that women can be just as skillful on the court as men. Now, she’s even more of an inspiration by standing up for social justice and being the complete opposite of a damsel in distress.
As Jonathan put it, “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.”