SITTING IN A courtroom in Jefferson City, Missouri, I could hear Jonathan Irons crying from his seat across the room -- but my eyes were fixed on Maya Moore, the WNBA star who eight months earlier had walked away from basketball to free this man from prison. Moore's eyes were fixed on him.
It was October 2019, and Irons' legal team was presenting the case for his innocence and wrongful conviction. Irons had just heard his original lawyer say that she didn't have access to a crucial piece of evidence in 1998, something that was discovered by Moore's godfather 12 years before it ever made it into a courtroom.
The validation, the burden of the truth, crashed over Irons. Listening to his sobs, Moore gripped the railing in front of her and clenched her jaw, willing her own tears to be kept at bay.
After the hearing, underneath a gray sky spitting pellets of rain, Moore stood on the courthouse steps to answer questions from the few media members in attendance. In response to my question about her emotion in the courtroom, she said: "I'm heartbroken that we can't console him as part of our family. One of the results of someone suffering injustice is that pain."
At the time, I took that to mean the pain she felt for him as a brother or family friend. Now, we know differently -- that the pain was perhaps the separation she felt from the man she would soon call her husband.
On Wednesday morning on "Good Morning America," Moore announced to the world that she and Irons got married a couple of months ago in a socially distanced event with their closest family and friends.
The news sparked a flurry of questions over social media and the sports landscape. And honestly, I had them too.
When did their relationship begin?
How long have they been together?
When did they meet again?
When was the wedding?
Why didn't Moore tell us before?
Would she have done this had there not been a romantic connection?
Does this diminish the work she's done?
Natural knee-jerk reactions. This was someone who, for years now, has been lauded for her selfless activism -- for disrupting her own life to fight for a man who couldn't fight for himself. But these questions do nothing but miss the larger point. Truthfully, the only question worth asking is one we should be asking of ourselves: Why do we care?
THE FACTS OF Jonathan Irons' case have not changed. In 1998, when he was 18, Irons was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison for burglary and assault, despite no physical evidence tying him to the scene of the crime. That conviction was vacated in March of this year, and he was released from prison on July 1, 2020 -- after spending more than two decades behind bars -- after the state of Missouri exhausted all legal recourse.
The facts of Moore's sacrifice and activism haven't changed either. Moore met Irons the summer after she graduated from high school in 2007, many years after her godfather, Reggie Williams, became interested in Irons' case. Over time, as Moore's national profile expanded, her interest in Irons and his case grew, too. But she kept her advocacy largely to herself until she spoke out with her Minnesota Lynx teammates in 2016 after the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
Eventually, though, the pull toward Irons, away from basketball, became too great, and she announced on Feb. 5, 2019, that she would step away from basketball to pursue "ministry dreams" -- later revealed to be her fight for Irons' freedom.
Let's be clear: Moore stepped away from basketball in the prime of what will be a Hall of Fame career to pursue justice for a man she believed was wrongfully convicted. That has not changed. She used her platform to call attention to not only Irons' case but the need for criminal justice reform. That has not changed. She worked for years to grant a man his freedom. That has not changed.
Should it really matter that she also came to love that man and decided to spend her life with him?
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MAYA MOORE HAS consistently said that when it comes to criminal justice reform, and her fight for it, the best thing she can do is to "continue to tell Jonathan's story well." Judging by the past year, that perspective is unlikely to change. But the focus of her activism might.
During their interview Wednesday morning on "GMA," Moore and Irons, sitting next to each other in their first public appearance since his release, began with an announcement, one that wasn't entirely surprising: a new get-out-the-vote initiative, aimed at educating voters in the run-up to the November election. "We're basically trying to just educate the public -- get them engaged in the voting process and just being more involved in what's going on with our country and our government and local jurisdictions, prosecuting offices," Irons said.
Then, after announcing their marriage, Moore added that her future in the WNBA remains uncertain. "I'm hoping sometime in the spring we'll be able to have a next step moving forward," she said, "but right now I am trying to really just breathe from this long, long battle and enjoy and rest."
Over the course of the 10 months I spent reporting about Moore and Irons, and the five trips I made to central Missouri, it was clear the emotional toll this fight took on Moore and all of her loved ones.
In December 2019, two months after Irons' evidentiary hearing in which Irons' legal team presented his case, Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green heard additional motions on the case and set another date for January. In the hallway, frustration bubbled over. People were tired. The case had been laid out two months ago, and now there needed to be another update hearing?
Even when the ruling came down in March that Irons' conviction would be vacated, it still took months for him to be released. The process, for those who'd endured it, felt interminable. Hearing after hearing. Update after update. Frustration became joy became frustration. And while I packed up my bag and flew back home after each five-minute hearing to just wait for the next one, Moore never left the pain she felt of time lost. That weight was always there. It was etched on her face every time she entered the courtroom.
On Wednesday, she shared a bit more of what was behind the clench in her jaw and the tension in her shoulders. It's a bit of information that we aren't entitled to know or to understand. Maya Moore sacrificed years of her life fighting to free a wrongfully convicted man. Truly, what else matters?