To do justly, to love mercy

Maya Moore stepped away from basketball stardom to help prove an imprisoned man’s innocence.

The Jefferson City News-Tribune via AP/File
WNBA star Maya Moore, right, calls Jonathan Irons as supporters react to his overturned conviction in a 1997 burglary and assault case. He was freed from prison July 1, 2020, after years of work by Moore and other supporters.

Her T-shirt read “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly” – three things God asks of His people in the Bible’s book of Micah.

When Jonathan Irons walked out of a prison in Jefferson City, Missouri, as a free man last week, Maya Moore couldn’t help but drop to her knees in gratitude. After becoming convinced of his innocence, Ms. Moore had spent years working to secure his release.

Another factor added to the drama of the moment: Last year, while still in her prime, Ms. Moore had given up her career as a superstar in the Women’s National Basketball Association to devote her full attention to the case. 

She wasn’t someone who’d just had a brush with professional sports. Ms. Moore is a six-time WNBA All-Star and a former league MVP. As a member of the Minnesota Lynx she’d won four WNBA titles. That was on top of two national championships at the University of Connecticut and a gold medal playing for Team USA in the 2016 Olympic Games.

In 1998 Mr. Irons, at age 16, had been tried as an adult and found guilty of burglary and the nonfatal shooting of a man in his home. He had always professed his innocence, and only shaky evidence tied him to the scene. His conviction was overturned when it was shown that his defense had not been given access to fingerprint evidence that could have helped his case. After 22 years, Mr. Irons was finally free.

“Until Maya Moore got involved, [Mr. Irons] just really didn’t have the resources to either hire counsel or hire investigators,” says his attorney, Kent Gipson. “It’s big to sacrifice a year of your career in your prime to do that.”

Professional athletes regularly make sizable gifts to charities, establish charitable foundations, and in general use their fame to promote various causes. And many of them aren’t household names. This week Patty Mills, a guard on the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, said he would donate all the money he earns when the NBA season resumes – just over $1 million – to three charities in his native Australia that combat racism. He’s decided to play, he says, because “I don’t want to leave any money on the table that could be going directly to Black communities.”  

Ms. Moore has said she will take the coming WNBA season off as well. Some speculate that she’ll retire altogether. Her criminal justice work has struck a chord with her, nurtured by her deep Christian faith, which has guided her since childhood.

“It hit me so hard when I was in middle school that God is my father, and He is my identity,” Ms. Moore said in a 2019 interview. “He is what matters most about who I am.”

Ms. Moore uses a sports metaphor to explain her commitment. 

“People don’t want to watch a fixed game,” she said in an interview after Mr. Irons’ release. “They want to watch a fair game, and so that’s all we’re asking for, in our justice system – let’s be fair.” 

For Ms. Moore, a new playing field may now beckon, one not filled with money and fame but with doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.

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