A wrongfully convicted Missouri man, whose bid for a retrial was supported by WNBA star Maya Moore, has been released after 22 years in prison.
Jonathan Irons was sentenced to 50 years behind bars on charges of assault and burglary when he was 18 years old.
Overturning the 1990 conviction, Judge Daniel Green called the case “very weak and circumstantial at best”.
Ms Moore, one of the best players in WNBA history, stepped away from the court last year to focus on his case.
The basketball legend joined family, friends and supporters to greet Mr Irons, now 40, on Wednesday as he walked out of Jefferson City Correctional Center – a maximum security prison in rural Missouri – as a free man.
“I just feel like I can live life now,” Mr Irons said to the New York Times. “I’m free, I’m blessed, I just want to live my life worth of God’s help and influence.”
His first steps outside the Missouri prison mark the end of a long and dedicated effort by Ms Moore and other supporters to win his freedom.
In March, Justice Green vacated Mr Irons’ decades-old conviction, deemed at the time by police to be a burglary and shooting in the residence of Stanley Stotler, then 38.
Mr Stotler, who is white, and the assailant both had firearms, and Mr Stotler was shot twice.
Mr Stotler was initially unable to pick out his assailant from a photo line-up. Later instructed by police to make his best guess, however, he pointed to a picture of Mr Irons – whose photo was slightly larger than the others – and to another photo of a different African-American man, US media report.
There was no material evidence or corroborating witnesses connecting Mr Irons to the crime. Though Mr Irons, who is African-American, was just 16 when the crime occurred, he was tried as an adult and found guilty by an all-white jury.
In Judge Green’s decision to overturn the initial decision, he cited a fingerprint found inside a door in the home of Mr Stotler that did not match Mr Stotler or Mr Irons. The fingerprint report was never turned over to the defence team in the initial trial.
This week, local prosecutors declined to retry the case.
Behind bars for more than 20 years, Mr Irons maintained his innocence, and said he would refuse parole because he it would require him to admit to wrongdoing.
Ms Moore, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, was first introduced to Mr Irons in 2007 during a penitentiary visit as part of her family’s prison ministry work.
The two became close friends, the New York Times reports, and Ms Moore dedicated herself to Mr Iron’s case, travelling frequently to her hometown of Jefferson City, Missouri to meet with Mr Irons and his defence team.
In February 2019, the basketball great stunned fans and fellow players by announcing she would be sitting out the 2019 season to focus on her family, her Evangelical faith, and Mr Irons’ case.
In January of this year, she said she would not return for the 2020 season, forgoing the chance to compete in the 2020 Olympics, now postponed to 2021.
A video of Mr Irons’ release shows Ms Moore collapsing to the ground, in seeming disbelief.
“Apparently I couldn’t keep standing,” she told media on Thursday. “It just felt so surreal to watch him walking on the other side of the doors.”