Transcript: Race in America: Criminal Justice System with Maya Moore Irons and Jonathan Irons

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MR. CAPEHART: Good morning. I’m Jonathan Capehart, associate editor at The Washington Post. Welcome to Washington Post Live and another in our series on “Race in America,” co-produced with the “Capehart” podcast.

Maya Moore and Jonathan Irons couldn’t have been more different when they met through her godparents in 2007. She is an Olympic gold medalist, star of the WNBA. He was behind bars serving a 50-year sentence for burglary and assault. Today they are Mr. and Mrs. Irons. Maya Moore Irons officially announced her retirement from basketball on January 16th. Jonathan Irons got his conviction overturned, thanks to efforts by Maya.

They’ve written about it all in her–in their–in their new book, “Love and Justice: A Story of Triumph on Two Different Courts.”

You see them right there. Jonathan and Maya Irons, welcome to Capehart on Washington Post Live.

MS. MOORE IRONS: Thanks for having us.

MR. IRONS: Yeah. Appreciate it, man. Glad to be here, man, to share our story.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, Maya, let me start, before we get into the book. You took a break from pro basketball to work on Jonathan’s case full-time. On Monday, MLK Day, you officially announced your retirement from the game. How hard was it to make that decision?

MS. MOORE IRONS: Well, my journey through my pro career was an unexpected ride. I think as the years were building and I was growing and maturing and just continuing to figure out what matters most to me in my life, I was sensing a need to shift my presence from the full-time pro space to being more rooted at home, to have a rhythm that allowed me to really rest and create some more space for the deep work that I was desiring and that was to come. And so much of that deep work was centered around Jonathan’s fight for freedom.

So it wasn’t hard in a sense that I wasn’t wrestling with should I or shouldn’t I, I think it was just hard in the sense of how do I do this well.

MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. Jonathan, you’ve done interviews and documentaries about your experience in prison, but why was it important for you to get your thoughts, put your story out on paper in “Love and Justice”?

MR. IRONS: Because I wanted it to be a record of what happens when you don’t get the criminal justice system right. I could have easily just–and I was even tempted to just go crawl up under rock and just hide and just mope in my pain, but I know that wasn’t going to help or change anything. And I believe that what happened to me is much bigger than me, and hopefully, by putting this story out there, it’s going to cause some systemic changes or at least generate a conversation, because there are some things that are broken that have to change in our system.

MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. Maya, let’s go to–let’s go back to the beginning. You met Jonathan in 2007 through your godparents, Reggie and Cheri Williams. Regarding your first face-to-face encounter, Jonathan wrote, quote, “She’s probably going to be afraid of me. She’s going to judge me and think I’m guilty.” What was your first impression of Jonathan?

MS. MOORE IRONS: Honestly, when I saw him, I was surprised at how alive he was. I was–I didn’t necessarily have a ton of expectations because I had never been into a maximum security prison before, but because I was with my godparents, I did have a sense of kind of safety and peace. But I was just approaching him as this person that was trying to persevere through an injustice, and so I was, you know, very open-minded. I was just engaging with him.

We even had such a good time connecting that we ended up playing a game of checkers.

MR. IRONS: Why you got to bring that up?

MS. MOORE IRONS: I will not tell you how the checkers game ended.

MR. IRONS: The world already know it. It’s all in the book.

MS. MOORE IRONS: But it’s in the book. It’s–you can read it yourself, folks.

MR. IRONS: And you ain’t played me since then.

MS. MOORE IRONS: Okay. I won the checker’s game. Spoiler.

MR. CAPEHART: That’s hilarious, Jonathan.

So Jonathan, I’m going to read your words, read your words back to you: “Maya hugged me and looked directly in my eyes. She didn’t look away, not for a second, and she spoke to me in a warm and loving way. Something inside my heart stirred because I wasn’t used to this sort of kindness.” Talk more–talk more about that. Why were you so surprised by how Maya treated you?

MR. IRONS: Well, I mean, like, prison is a very harsh place. It’s just the nature of that place, and the longer you’re there, the more people forget about you. And you’re–you learn pretty fast that you’re a number, and that’s what’s most important about you.

I didn’t even own my own flesh in there. I was–I belonged and was a possession of the state, and I was used to people coming in, “Hey, how you doing? What’s going on? Oh, you’re in prison for a while?” and then leaving, or looking at me, “Oh, you’re in prison. You got to be guilty. If you’re in here, you did something,” because that’s a common thought.

But Maya, she looked me in my eye and was just like, “I’m not concerned about that. I just–you’re a person to me,” and it just–I wasn’t used to that. And I was in disbelief, and I was just taken aback, and I was just so–so blessed in that moment that she actually saw me, because I had not been used to that at all.

MR. CAPEHART: We need to remind folks, Jonathan, you were a kid–

MR. CAPEHART: –when you were convicted of a crime you did not commit. You were 16 or 17?

MR. IRONS: I was 16, and I had to fight grown men in a maximum security prison for my survival.

MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. And you had been in prison how many years by the time you met Maya?

MR. IRONS: What year was it? When did we meet?

MS. MOORE IRONS: So it was around 10 years.

MR. IRONS: Yeah. Okay. Yeah.

MR. CAPEHART: Right around 10 years. And I wanted to bring up that, that timetable so people could more fully understand–

MR. CAPEHART: Yeah. –so people could more fully understand why you were so–you were so moved by how warm and open and friendly Maya was when you met her.

You also write in the book, Jonathan–and you were talking about this in the clip that we just showed in your interview on ABC with Robin Roberts. I believe you were talking about the Bible, but–and correct me if I’m wrong, but you write, “I opened up the Bible and started skimming through it. I was still skeptical. I didn’t believe God could help me, nor did I comprehend the valuable weapon in my hands, a weapon my grandmother had given to me. But Granny knew.”

Talk about the importance of God and your faith in this time when you are a child in prison, as you just said, fighting grown men for your own survival.

MR. IRONS: Well, there’s a–there’s one–one of my favorite verses in the Bible, I believe it’s Psalm 27:10. It says when your mother and your father forsake you, the Lord will take you up. Like, I was–I was in basically the lions’ den surrounded by, like, very, very dangerous people, and like, I remember some of the things my grandmother had taught me from an early age. We would sit and read chapters out of the Bible, and we would talk about it. And as I was going through that, she continued to just tell me, “Are you praying? Are you reading Psalms? Are you reading Proverbs?” and I would tell her yeah.

I would sit and find myself just reading in it and then just like, “Man, is this legit? Is this serious?” and the more and more I got into it, the more and more I saw things that just made me not look away and say I can’t disbelieve this. I’m seeing things that are playing out in my life that I know only–that can only be God, and like, I went through experiences and had encounters, I believe, in there. Like, in solitary confinement, that just made me know that he was for me and with me and protected me through that.

MR. IRONS: And there is nothing in me that could say, man, God ain’t real and then he ain’t for me because I have seen and tasted and I know he’s real.

MR. CAPEHART: And so, Maya–go ahead, Maya.

MS. MOORE IRONS: No, I was saying—-I was going to say when–as I was getting to know Jonathan and hearing some of his stories and some of his testimonies, one of the things that shocked me was hearing about the men that discipled him inside and took the time to nurture him–

MS. MOORE IRONS: –and to guide him and to show him who God was and how to be a man of God on top of his relationship with my great uncle as a faithful man to nurture and love Jonathan to help him become the man he is today–

MS. MOORE IRONS: –which just is another reminder of how important it is for the people who claim to be followers of Jesus to actually do that and live that and be that because there’s–that’s the plan. That’s the way the world changes. That’s the way life happens and healing happens is through people doing and being who we were created to be.

MR. CAPEHART: Jonathan, is one of those men– Maya–was in prison that Maya is talking about, is that Hugh Flowers?

MR. IRONS: Yeah. Hugh Flowers is definitely one of them. He was a VIC that would come in, and he was the first man that believed in me and, like, told me that I was intelligent and that I had value, and he inspired me to go to the library. And I lived in the library as a result, and he basically was my father figure for so long. Like, he brought me through, man.

And there were other guys that were actually prisoners inside that had faith and that would walk with me and teach me things and just, you know, share life with me, but in a way, that was uplifting and empowering for me in an environment like that, because there’s a tendency to just be frustrated and angry and just drove up. But it’s a blessing to have guys that just show you like, “Yeah, this is a bad situation, but you need–you need to hold your faith, and you need to keep walking, no matter what your circumstances are. You can do this.” And they did that for me. There were many men, many good men.

MR. CAPEHART: As you write about Mr. Flowers, “For the first time in my life, I was given confidence that I was intelligent, that I had value and worth. I believed that I had something inside me that could be built, that could be used for something bigger than myself.”

MR. CAPEHART: The book starts–and I thought there was just a fabulous way to start this book to get to know each of you. You each write a chapter about your upbringing, and it starts with Jonathan, and then, Maya, you tell your upbringing.

I’m going to do something counterintuitive. Jonathan, how would you describe Maya’s upbringing?

MR. IRONS: I would–I would describe Maya’s upbringing as wholesome because she was raised in a tribe of people. Like, she wasn’t raised around her father, but there were people that surrounded her and poured into her and just embraced her. That’s part of our heritage. Like, it takes a village, and that’s what she had. And it’s such a–and they’re still surrounding her and still helping her.

I can remember being in prison, hearing about the road trips where they would rent buses and go down to her games, and everybody in there fighting, “Are we there yet?” and hollering, but they were going to see her games because they loved her and they supported her. And I know she needed that, but that was good.

MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. And, Maya, how would you describe Jonathan’s upbringing?

MS. MOORE IRONS: Well, I think Jonathan’s upbringing was heartbreaking in a lot of ways but also resilient. I think those two words happening at the same time because he was raised in poverty. He did not have the normal experience, what we would think of as a normal experience of feeling safe and having his needs met consistently.

But he also had a rock in his granny–

MS. MOORE IRONS: –to show him, give him a glimpse, a very large glimpse of what could be, what love is supposed to look like. But it built a resilience, I think, in Jonathan, but it also left him vulnerable. I think he experienced vulnerability that children should not experience, because of his lack of resources and the way his family and the culture that he lived in had been broken through the generations, whether that was, you know, drugs or violence, lack of opportunity. You know, we can talk much more about how that happens, but I also think he was a diamond in the rough, but he had it very rough.

MR. CAPEHART: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean, Jonathan, reading that, reading your words about your upbringing was–it just tore my heart out from the story about going to your friend’s house that had a bathroom inside, and you had a very evocative line where you said you and granny were so poor, you had to climb up to reach the poverty line.

Let’s talk about more broadly the criminal justice system. You wrote that you’d dreamt of being a police officer when you were a child, but you said the officers and detectives who arrested you at 16 neither read you your Miranda Rights nor had–there was no attorney present. No adult was present during your interrogation, and reading that reminded me of that was the same thing that happened with the Central Park Five, and so I’m wondering, how has that influenced your views on policing in America today, your experience?

MR. IRONS: Well, I think–I think there needs to be more checks and balances. I think all the interrogations, it just should–there should be legislative enactments put in place to require officers to record every interrogation, every interaction, so there can be—-there can be oversight and a record of what has happened, because when you don’t do that, there’s–we’ve seen too many times where you see police officers put in evidence, and then somebody’s got it on the phone, on the phone recording it, and you see it. But they’re write in the report something totally different. And I just think that it would be a good practice.

But I will say this. We need police officers in our society. It’s–that’s just the reality. And they do keep us safe, and I respect them, and I appreciate their service. But there are some of them that take their job beyond the scope or the color of law that it should be, and we need to address those so that we can have a safer environment and have safer policing practices.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, Maya, pick up on what Jonathan is talking about and also talk about what you’re calling prosecutorial reform and how you’re–what does that–what does that look like from your vantage point, and how are you doing that through the organization you founded called “Win With Justice”?

MS. MOORE IRONS: Yes. So one of the biggest parts of our heart is really to put color behind some of these–not slogans, but some of these words you hear and some of these systematic things and changes in this and that. And some people are hearing these cries for change but not really understanding why a change is necessary, because maybe your family and your life experience hasn’t seen the devastation of what happens when these changes aren’t made. And so sharing Jonathan’s story, sharing our family’s story will hopefully help people kind of settle into a place to have their perspective widened to see what some of these unhealthy practices and ways are doing.

And so one of those ways is a culture that can be present in some prosecutors’ offices that are simply about getting the conviction. Basically, “Whoever is on the other side, I’m just trying to beat them,” instead of really taking the time and the energy to look with a more restorative justice lens of saying how can the other side–how can this community take in account both sides and seeing what is needed for healing, for restoration, for justice, which also means going back and fixing mistakes that are a result of a non-perfect system.

And so one of the aspects on our nonprofit, Win With Justice, that we love to highlight is an organization called “For the People,” and there’s a tool in our toolkit tab that helps people learn more about how there’s initiatives, prosecutor-initiated reforms where they can go back and undo wrongful convictions and reexamine questionable convictions so that the prosecutors can be encouraged to have those checks and balances.

MS. MOORE IRONS: And there are good ideas out there. It’s just a matter of, I think, shining a light for the whole community, not just the community that you’re safe and comfortable in but the whole human community around you. If they’re–if we’re not all safe and given tools to thrive, then what kind of community are we? What kind of America are we?

When I go overseas and represent the United States and they put that gold medal around our neck, like, what are we doing? Who are we really becoming? And so I just want us to open up our eyes to the least and the vulnerable and saying there’s life down here–

MS. MOORE IRONS: –how can I use my privilege and my power to pour it out, to uplift someone else? Because at the end of the day, we all need help, and we’re all where we are because of the help we received.

MR. CAPEHART: Jonathan, you want to add anything more?

MR. IRONS: She said it. She said it.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, I will then move on to–we have a question from the audience. This comes from Minnesota. It comes from Nena Andueza. She asks, “Having navigated the criminal justice system, what do you see as the biggest barriers to structural change?” Jonathan, how about you start in, and, Maya, you can pick up.

MR. IRONS: Well, I would say this. There is not enough people that are involved or aware of what’s going on in these legislative sessions where these laws are passed. For example, the Supreme Court has authorized prosecutors to basically to have immunity. They can literally get away with planting false evidence–well, not necessarily, but presenting false testimony, knowing that it’s false at a trial and convicting a person. That should not be. There are no checks and balances for them. You can you can’t hold them accountable, short of them basically shooting someone in broad daylight.

I think another barrier is the disparity between public defenders and prosecutors. Public defenders, they are overworked and underfunded, and they just don’t have enough resources, where prosecutors, like, yeah, they get a lot of cases. They work for a lot, but they have a whole police force and investigative agency that that’s their job to just go out and do stuff, where public defenders, they got to file a motion to get money, to get funding, to get a budget, to go get someone to hopefully investigate the case. Like, that’s a huge thing.

And I think another thing that is a barrier is the states where conviction integrity units are not legislative law yet. They’re just basically a dog-and-pony show where they get funding and they get these grants, but they don’t have the teeth by law to actually overview a case. Those are some of the major things that I’m thinking about off the top of my head that are barriers to reform.

MS. MOORE IRONS: I remember when Jonathan, over the years, was teaching me about some of these things, and conviction integrity units are something that we share with the reader in the back of the book for more resources. And it makes so much sense, right? In a checks-and-balances situation, you need to have units that are looking at the integrity of convictions to just be sure that you’re sure that you’re sure, as best as you can, that whatever human being you are determining the fate of is it’s actually in line with justice, and again, not just in a superficial way but actually in a way that’s making a difference in communities.

Yeah. I think just a culture of transparency. Again, it’s not necessarily the easiest way when you have transparency, but it’s the safest way to ensure that the right thing can be done. And so establishing systems and ways to create more transparency. Just like we had transparency on Jonathan’s case and when light was put on it, the right thing was done.

And so if anybody is running away from transparency, that’s generally a red flag that there might not be the best practices going on.

MS. MOORE IRONS: Any politician, any leader in your community who is running away from transparency or just general humanizing language–

MS. MOORE IRONS: –is probably not going to represent the best interests of humanity.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, Maya, as I, you know, get to know your story and listening to you two, especially talking about the conviction integrity units, when you met Jonathan, he was already 10 years into a 50‑year conviction. You meet him through your godparents. He is, you know, professing, “I didn’t do this.” What made you believe in his innocence?

MS. MOORE IRONS: Mm-hmm. Great question. That’s a super great question. So, with our story, I think it’s hard sometimes for people to realize this, this was a long journey. Again, Jonathan was in for 10 years before I met him. My godparents had gotten to know him for almost two years before they introduced me to him, and Jonathan was so down and discouraged for a while when he first got arrested. And it took him some time to even get the life under him to start teaching himself law and fighting for his own freedom.

Like, he had to go through the pain but then say, “Hey, I’m going to do something,” and he’s brilliant, and he taught himself law and started to advocate for himself. And so after he got–every year, he would get more and more clarity on what happened in his case, because information was buried and hidden and not put in the light, but he did all he could to find more and more information. And the more you read the facts about his case, it was like this is insane and messed up and wrong, and so we as laypeople, just like we didn’t know what to do, we just kept trying to move forward. My godparents would visit him every weekend.

MS. MOORE IRONS: They’re the real heroes in all of this. So just as everyone is talking about what Maya did, it’s literally because of my godparents, Cheri and Reggie Williams, helping him, Jonathan working, doing resources–like sharing resources, just doing everything that they could.

But I think the words were best said by one of the eyewitness experts we called in his evidentiary hearing that said Jonathan’s case could literally be a case study of what not to do with eyewitness procedure. The appellate court, when they responded to the state of Missouri, when the state of Missouri was trying to prevent Jonathan from coming home, when the Supreme Court in Kansas City said basically stop it, this is egregious for so many reasons, that those were the reasons I believed him because I saw the facts of the case. And then the more I got to know him I saw like, oh, this is a serious person who has done his research and his homework, and obviously, just learning his character over the years, it just makes you fall in love with Jonathan and want to fight for him even more.

MR. CAPEHART: That is a wonderful segue to the next question I was going to ask, which is, how did it–how did this first meeting in 2007 go from, “Hey, how you doing” to “Hey, we’re kind of like siblings” to “Hey, how you doing? I like you”?

MR. IRONS: Hey, what’s your–

MS. MOORE IRONS: Your version of asking that question is my favorite. Oh, man.

Well, I don’t want to give away all the deets, but–

MR. IRONS: You got to read the book.

MS. MOORE IRONS: Yeah, there’s some–there’s some more details in the book, but yeah, I think there came a point where we had been walking with each other for so many years.

MS. MOORE IRONS: We had known–yeah, we had known each other and established a really great friendship for six years before we started to be more honest about where we felt like we were headed, and so our love story was super unorthodox.

Jonathan was very conscious of wanting to protect me and not draw me into something that wasn’t going to work out or be safe for me or good for me, and so he would always try to check in to make sure I was wanting to move forward with him and just to continue to stick with him. And every time he would, I would threaten him and say, “Don’t you ask me that again. I’m here.”

MR. IRONS: She threatened to cut me. She threatened to cut me, and I was like okay.

MS. MOORE IRONS: It’s just a little violence, not too much.

MR. CAPEHART: But, yeah, he broke the–he–how do I want to say it? You slipped up first which‑‑again, you just have to read it in the book.

MS. MOORE IRONS: But he slipped up first and then–

MR. IRONS: Got a little flirtatious.

MS. MOORE IRONS: Got a little flirtatious and, you know, just–again, you got to read it in the book.

MR. CAPEHART: Right. Got to read it in the book, but flirtation led to marriage which led to little Jonathan Jr.

MS. MOORE IRONS: Our little baby. I love watching him be a dad.

MR. CAPEHART: How old is he? How old is he now?

MR. IRONS: He’ll be a year February 7th.

MS. MOORE IRONS: I can’t even–I can’t even–

MS. MOORE IRONS: I don’t know where that year went.

MR. IRONS: We need to get a grant to feed the child because he eating up everything.

MS. MOORE IRONS: A grant.

MR. IRONS: I don’t where he putting it.

MS. MOORE IRONS: There’s–I don’t know very much–very many meals he’s turned down.

MS. MOORE IRONS: He likes to eat.

MR. IRONS: He eats everything.

MS. MOORE IRONS: But he is our pride and joy, our love.

MS. MOORE IRONS: And Jonathan’s–one of his biggest dreams in life was to be a father.

MS. MOORE IRONS: So it’s just so sweet.

MR. IRONS: My greatest aspiration is to be a good dad.

MR. CAPEHART: Wow. I want to end this–end this conversation on you, Jonathan. You are a free man and have been since March 2020. You have the opportunity to reclaim your identity. How would you define yourself today?

MR. IRONS: Honestly, man, I would define myself as somebody, man, who’s trying to put the pieces of his life together, because, like, there been a crater that’s been blown in my life, and I am so thankful to have an army of people around me that love me and support me, because it helps. It helps get through, but that pain is there. And I’m not going to say, man, like every day is a good day, and like, I can forget about what happened and what I went through. But I wake up with her every morning. I get to kiss my baby every morning, and I get to–I get hugs from my family. I’ve started a dog business, and I always loved dogs. My dog business is called Dogs We Trust, LLC, and I get to love on them dogs. So, I mean, it’s–I’m thankful for what I have, you know?

MR. CAPEHART: I’m going to end this interview before I start crying. [Laughs]

MR. IRONS: Yep. I’m always–

MR. CAPEHART: All already all I’m go.

All I’m going to say is, Maya, everybody should have a partner in their life who looks at them the way Jonathan looks at you. Maya Moore–Maya Moore Aarons, Jonathan–“Aarons”–Maya Moore Irons, Jonathan Irons, authors of “Love and Justice: A story of Triumph on Two Different Courts,” thank you so much for coming to “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.

MS. MOORE IRONS: Thank you.

MS. MOORE IRONS: It was an honor.

MR. CAPEHART: And thank you for joining us. To check out what interviews we have coming up, head to WashingtonPostLive.com.

Once again, I’m Jonathan Capehart, associate editor at The Washington Post. Thank you for watching “Capehart” on Washington Post Live.



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