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Jonathan Irons

Other Missouri exonerations
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Between 6:30 and 6:40 p.m. on January 14, 1997, 38-year-old Stanley Stotler arrived at his home on Shallow Lake Drive in O’Fallon, Missouri after work. When he entered the bedroom, he heard a “click” sound coming from his closet. Because his home had been burglarized just a month before, Stotler reached under his mattress and pulled out his nine millimeter pistol, loaded it, and pointed it at the closet door.

He then ordered whoever was inside to come out and said he was going to call the police. He picked up the telephone with his left hand and held the gun aimed at the closet door. The door opened and a young Black man asked him not to call the police because they were looking for him. The closet was dark and the light was off.

Stotler later said he kept the gun pointed at the burglar’s chest for five to 10 seconds before the youth slowly closed the door. As Stotler looked down at the phone to dial 911, the door reopened. He saw a flash of gunfire and was shot in the right arm. The intruder then emerged from the closet, shot Stotler in the right temple, and fled from the house.

Stotler staggered to the kitchen and dialed 911. He said he had been shot once and that he did not see what the gunman was wearing. He said that he did not know if the burglar said anything to him, and that he believed the gunman was still inside the house. He described the attacker as a black man.

When police arrived, the front door was open. A search of the house revealed that the gunman had left. Stotler was taken to the hospital. Police believed the intruder entered through a basement window, which had been broken from the outside in. The officers found two .25-caliber shell casings and one nine-millimeter shell casing. A bullet was removed from a wall in the bedroom outside the closet. Outside the broken basement window was a plastic grocery bag containing a CD player with headphones, 12 CDs, and power cords—none of which belonged to Stotler.

St. Charles County deputy sheriff Ricky Leutkenhaus collected three latent fingerprints from the interior of the front storm door of the house.

Police conducted a door-to-door canvass. Erin Windau told police she was with 16-year-old Jonathan Irons at the home of another friend, Tim Russell, who lived one street over from Stotler’s home. She said that Irons had a gun. Russell told police Irons was at his house between 5 and 6 p.m. for about 45 minutes. Russell said Irons was wearing a jumpsuit like a mechanic would wear and had a couple of CDs, but no plastic bag. He said Irons showed him a handgun.

Scott Emberton, who lived in the neighborhood and was a friend of Irons, said that around 6 p.m., he saw Irons walking down the street carrying a plastic bag, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and dark pants.

On January 21, 1997, Irons was arrested. O’Fallon police detective Michael Hanlen said he interrogated Irons privately and did not record the questioning electronically. Hanlen said he destroyed his notes of the interrogation without showing them to anyone.

Hanlen said Irons first denied being at Stotler’s house, then said he had been at the home, but didn’t remember being inside. Hanlen said Irons ultimately admitted he broke a window, but had no memory of anything else.

On February 6, Stotler, who was still in the hospital, was shown a photographic lineup that included Irons’s photo. Stotler said he could not identify anyone. The detectives then asked him to take his “best guess.” Stotler said the gunman could have been either the person in the third position or in the sixth position. Irons was in the third position and bore little resemblance to the person in the sixth position.

After Stotler was released from the hospital, he was given a copy of all of the police reports as well as a photograph of the lineup. At a preliminary hearing on March 14, 1997, Stotler identified Irons, who was sitting at the defense table, as the gunman. Stotler would later say that one of the reasons that he identified Irons was that he read on the door outside the courtroom a listing that said, “State of Missouri versus Jonathan Irons.”

In October 1998, Irons was tried as an adult in St. Charles County Circuit Court. Stotler again identified him as the gunman. No physical evidence linked Irons to the crime. DNA testing on blood found on Irons’s jacket revealed it was human blood, but did not belong to Irons or Stotler.

Deputy Leutkenhaus testified that he seized a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol “in conjunction with this investigation.” No evidence was presented that linked it in any way to Irons. The gun had been recovered following a tip from a confidential informant who provided no information that it belonged to Irons or had been used in the crime. No fingerprints were recovered from the weapon and the serial number had been removed. The .25-caliber casings recovered in Stotler’s bedroom could not be linked to the gun.

Two witnesses testified that the gun that Leutkenhaus recovered looked like the gun that they saw Irons carrying.

Leutkenhaus also testified that the fingerprints he obtained from the door belonged to Stotler—none of them belonged to Irons.

On October 20, 1998, after a two-day trial, a jury convicted Irons of first-degree assault, armed criminal action, and first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In 2007, years after his convictions were upheld on appeal, a team of advocates for Irons went to the O’Fallon police department to examine the file in the case. That team included lawyers, former law student investigators, and concerned citizens who had become interested in the case.

They discovered a fingerprint report from Leutkenhaus that said that two of the fingerprints recovered from the Stotler’s door were identifiable and that one print belonged to Stotler and neither belonged to Irons. The report showed that one remaining print was not identified—raising the possibility that the print was left by the burglar who shot Stotler.

In 2014, Irons’s defense team notified St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar of the discovery and requested that the case be reinvestigated. Subsequently, the prints were submitted for touch DNA testing. However, the tests were inconclusive, likely due to degradation after 20 years in storage.

Years later, Irons gained another advocate—Maya Moore, a star of the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA. Moore’s family initially met Irons through a prison ministry program and Moore met Irons in 2007 during a visit to the prison. She went on to became a national basketball star at the University of Connecticut. Her teams won four WNBA championships and Moore won a Most Valuable Player Award. She shocked the sports world in 2019 when she decided to take a year off to advocate full-time for Irons. By that time, she had helped fund the defense and the hiring of attorney Kent Gipson, an expert in post-conviction litigation.

In 2018, Gipson had filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging Irons’s convictions. The petition asserted that the prosecution had failed to disclose the fingerprint report and had allowed Leutkenhaus to testify falsely about the fingerprints.

The petition also asserted that Detective Hanlen, who claimed that Irons had confessed but that he had destroyed his notes, had maintained a blog after he retired. In the blog, Hanlen “bragged about his illegal and unconstitutional police misconduct during his tenure on the force.” This misconduct included planting evidence at crime scenes to cover up misconduct, manufacturing false evidence to obtain a search warrant, and failing to report the misconduct of other officers.

In March 2020, Circuit Court Judge Daniel R. Green granted the petition and vacated Irons’s convictions. The judge noted that the prosecution had conceded that the fingerprint report had not been disclosed. In fact, evidence showed that the bottom portion of the original report that showed that one fingerprint was unidentified apparently had been covered up when it was copied. The report that was disclosed was the sanitized version. Judge Green said the undisclosed portion of the report would have been “unassailable forensic evidence” to attack the state’s case and support [Irons’s] claim of innocence.”

The judge also noted that Irons’s trial defense attorney had failed to call a witness, Michelle Boeckman, who would have placed Irons at a location that was far enough from Stotler’s home that it was “logistically difficult if not impossible for [Irons] to have committed this crime.” Moreover, the judge faulted Irons’s defense lawyer for failing to establish that the gun presented in evidence “had no connection either to the offense or to [Irons] and probably should not have been admitted into evidence.”

Judge Green also cited the testimony at an evidentiary hearing from Dr. James Lampinen, a University of Arkansas psychology professor who reviewed the eyewitness identification factors in the case. Lampinen said that the photograph of Irons used in the photographic lineup was significantly larger than those of the other five men in the lineup. Lampinen determined that Irons’s head “was twenty-five percent larger than the average of the other photos, making [Irons’s] photo inherently suggestive based upon size alone,” Judge Green said.

Lampinen was critical of the police officers who suggested that Stotler make a “guess” when viewing the lineup. He also said that Stotler’s identification had evolved from virtually no description on the day of the crime to a very specific description of Irons and his clothing. Lampinen testified that the likely explanation was that Stotler’s identification was based on “suggestive outside factors rather than memory.”

Judge Green said he found Lampinen’s testimony “credible and…raises grave doubts regarding the reliability and accuracy of the eyewitness identification by Mr. Stotler.” The judge also said the evidence relating to Hanlen’s undisclosed misconduct as well as the enhancement of Irons’s lineup photograph, when combined with the fingerprint evidence “removes any doubt that the verdict in this case is not worthy of confidence.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s office appealed the ruling. On July 1, 2020, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected a final appeal. That same day, the charges were dismissed and Irons was released.

In September 2020, Moore and Irons disclosed that they had married after his release.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/20/2020
Last Updated: 9/16/2020
State:Missouri
County:St. Charles
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1997
Convicted:1998
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:50 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:16
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No