In 2008, a 24-year-old Redmond-based software engineer named Arpana Jinaga was found strangled in her apartment after a Halloween party in her building. DNA evidence was linked to three men and ultimately used to convict Emanuel Fair, a Black man from Seattle. After serving nine years in prison, he was found not guilty of Jinaga’s murder and released in 2019. The case remains unsolved today.
In a new Wondery podcast series called “Suspect,” career journalists Matthew Shaer and Eric Benson investigate the story of Jinaga’s murder, Fair’s conviction and the spiderweb of details around this story. Since its release on Aug. 31, “Suspect” has vaulted to the top spot on Chartable’s U.S. rankings of most listened to Apple podcasts. Shaer and Benson previously collaborated on another true-crime podcast called “Over My Dead Body.”
Instead of trying to solve Jinaga’s murder, Shaer and Benson use extensive interviews to weave a complex narrative around race, injustice, the place of forensic DNA evidence in the common perception of guilt and innocence and, ultimately, a tragic story with no real closure.
The Seattle Times recently spoke with Shaer and Benson over Zoom about the impetus for this podcast, what surprised them in their reporting and what their take-aways are from investigating this story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What drew you to this story, and why now?
Shaer: This is a story that found me rather than the other way around. I’d written an article about DNA forensic science for The Atlantic, and I was like everybody else — I thought that DNA worked like it did on “Law & Order,” where it’s a green light. Writing the Atlantic story was a bit of a wake [up] call in all the different ways that DNA can be misused. It’s the best we can do forensically, but it still requires human beings to translate. So I was really primed to be interested in that anyway. When I started talking to Emanuel and then to Ben Goldsmith, his attorney, I was like, “Wow, this case is sort of exactly what I’ve been thinking about.” … It was DNA that drew us to it initially. But as the reporting got going in earnest, it became more about an opportunity to do something which I’ve always wanted to do, which is really break down an investigation from beginning to end and see how these cases come together or don’t.
Benson: DNA was kind of the selling point in terms of why this was going to be something that was current and hadn’t been talked about a lot, because the DNA science has evolved very quickly. [In the 1980s], you really needed a lot of body fluid, so there was no ambiguity about whose DNA it was. Now science has gotten very sophisticated. The power of that for potentially solving a crime, but also the potential shortcomings of DNA, was something everyone we talked to for this series has been really honest about. That’s where a lot of the drama is for us, and where we wanted to investigate what had happened.
Was there anything that surprised you in your reporting of this story?
Benson: We didn’t know that the Redmond [Police Department] was going to be willing to participate in the show. We didn’t know that the King County prosecutor’s office was going to be willing to participate in the show. We didn’t know if anyone from the Valley View apartments or if the people in Arpana’s life or the other people who at one point or another seem to have been at least persons of interest, if they were going to want to talk. But we got really all of those people. I think one surprise for me was, we talked to three jurors. There were really intense, long jury deliberations for the first trial and hearing about that from people who were truly going in cold to this case and this story, I thought it was really fascinating and not a place I really imagined that we’d be going at the beginning.
Shaer: It’s astonishing when you look at a case in this way, the power that every decision has over the rest of the investigation and the trial, the power that individuals have, prosecutors, police, jurors especially. And when you get to talk to all these different people who are involved in the case at different times, you see how that power manifests itself or doesn’t. You see the consequences of a decision, even a relatively small decision.
What do you hope people will learn from this story, and what kind of impact do you hope it will have?
Shaer: It might be different from other types of true-crime shows that people are used to where there’s an agenda as to who ultimately committed the crime or who didn’t. We didn’t want to make that kind of show. We didn’t want to make a promise up front that we will reveal who did this or who didn’t. It was important for us to take the case as a whole and consider all the directions that it might’ve gone, yes, but not to draw any conclusions.
Here was a case where a woman was murdered and there were years of investigation, years of pursuing various suspects, two trials. And there is nobody in prison or even charged with this murder right now. How did that happen? What were the things that made that possible? Why did it play out like it did? I hope people think about that, but I also hope that they think about the way that justice is carried out or not, in cities across the country and in a really liberal place like Seattle. This is sort of in the background of the show, but Seattle is a liberal place. Even Seattle’s prosecutors are far more liberal than prosecutors in other parts of the country in terms of their policies. And still you have something that plays out like this did, where no one is currently arrested, indicted or in prison for this, and the investigation is nonexistent. That’s depressing.
Benson: I think no one feels satisfied with the outcome. Of course, for [Arpana’s] family, it’s crushing. The most crushing thing of course is she’s not here, but you can imagine it would be really difficult for her family to have that lack of closure. … there’s no closure for them, certainly from the justice system. The last episode is called “Haunted” because that’s how everyone feels by what happened there. … But what I hope people also get from this is that there’s a lot of vitality in the podcast … it starts with Arpana and her being an extremely alive, curious person. I hope we did something to draw attention to that. And the energy with which many of the people pursued this case … it is tragic, what happened. … But there’s also a kind of incredible energy that went into every part of this; as much as it all sort of ended up with everyone feeling haunted, this was a lot of people trying to do what they thought was right, in most cases.
Shaer: This is a really challenging case to think about on lots of different levels. It’s challenging in terms of race, in terms of policing, in terms of forensic science. It’s got a lot wrapped up in it and I am just grateful that people are engaging with it. … It gives me a little bit of hope, that something that is relatively complicated is being thought about and talked about in the way that it is.