He Spent Eight Years In Jail Without a Conviction. Now, He's Suing Everyone Who Kept Him There (2024)

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Most of the people at the Halloween party at the Valley View Apartments didn’t remember Emanuel Fair’s name. In witness statements in his police file, a couple of people knew him by his first initial; a few people described him by his costume – a borrowed “construction worker” outfit. But most of the partygoers simply referred to him as “the Black guy.”

Just hours after that party ended, in the early morning of Nov. 1, 2008, one of the hosts of the Halloween party — a 24-year-old software engineer and Indian immigrant named Arpana Jinaga — was beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled to death in her home at the apartment complex. When lead Detective Brian Coats looked at photos of the party, he noticed Fair — “the only African American male at the party.” He said he looked like an “outsider,” and a background check found that he had criminal history and a third-degree rape charge. They soon zeroed in on him as their lead suspect, and after finding DNA of his at the crime scene, they charged him with Jinaga’s murder. On Oct. 30, 2010, he was placed in a holding cell in Seattle’s King County jail while he awaited trial.

He sat in that jail for eight years, seven months, and 14 days without ever being convicted of a crime. With an insurmountable seven-figure bail hanging over him, he waited in a facility that was never meant for long-term stays – largely in isolation – and maintained his innocence every day.

He faced two trials. The first, in 2017, ended in a hung jury because of one juror, who said after the trial that when he looked at Fair, he saw “a thug” with “tattoos on his hands.” But in his second trial, which ended on June 11, 2019, a jury determined that the detectives and prosecutors had never had a strong enough case against him. And just like that, he was cleared of all charges, and walked free.

Now, two years later, he’s suing everyone that had the power to put him in that cell. Just before the New Year, Fair filed a lawsuit the county, the city of Redmond, the Redmond Police Department, and Detective Coats himself. This week, his legal team filed a new, expanded complaint including ten more pages detailing their allegations, and adding the prosecutor on the case, and the rest of the detectives who participated in the investigation, to the list of defendants. The suit contends that Fair never would have been in that cell — and certainly not for years — if he weren’t a Black man with a criminal record. The suit describes an investigation that was “so badly handled it can only be characterized as bizarre.”

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Rolling Stone’s account of Fair’s case and the investigation into Jinaga’s murder is based on more than a thousand pages of case files and legal documents. They show that there was persuasive evidence against at least six other suspects that the detectives were investigating — none of whom were Black, and none of whom spent a day in jail for Jinaga’s murder. Fair’s lawsuit claims the detectives on the case “ignored and failed to gather evidence that did not align with their theory of the case.” It also alleges they treated Fair so differently than the white suspects that “the treatment can only be viewed as racial discrimination.”

The case files show breaches of protocol that span from careless errors — such as not training their detectives to change gloves between DNA samples and not securing key locations of the crime scene — to calling in a famous psychic medium to weigh in on the case. Those protocol failures, the suit alleges, in concert with the detectives’ apparent racial discrimination, deprived Emanuel Fair of his civil rights, and denied Arpana Jinaga any chance at justice. (The Redmond Police Department declined to comment for this story “due to pending litigation.” King County, the Redmond Police Department, and Detective Brian Coats filed a response to Fair’s initial complaint, denying every claim. Detective Coats is now a captain in the department.)

“I’ve never seen a worse case,” says Corinne Sebren, one of Fair’s lawyers, who specializes in civil rights cases. “There’s very little justice left to salvage.” There is, however, a person trying to salvage a life interrupted, trying to return to life after a decade in purgatory, thanks to a legal system that still won’t concede it’s done anything wrong.

Since his release, Fair moved in with his aunt and uncle in Seattle’s Central District, into the house he lived in when he was a teenager. He’s stout but not tall, and at 38, his facial hair is salt and pepper now. “There’s no resolution for this case,” he tells Rolling Stone, standing in the garden of the house his family’s lived in for almost 50 years. This lawsuit “is the closest thing to justice I can get.”

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Fair crossed paths with Jinaga for the first time on Oct. 31, 2008, in what would turn out to be the hours before her death. That night, Jinaga co-hosted a Halloween party that spanned multiple units in the Valley View apartments in a small Seattle suburb called Redmond. The building was motel-style, so everyone’s front door faced the outside of the building, and for the party that night, four residents — including Jinaga — decorated their apartments and opened their doors.

At any given time, 40 or 50 people — mostly residents and their friends and family — were milling through the apartments. Fair was one of the many friends-of-residents at the party. He usually lived in the Central District, a historically Black neighborhood in an otherwise very white city. He’d been staying with a childhood friend, in the basem*nt of his mom’s house, but needed a place to stay while his friend was out of town for the weekend. That’s how he ended up at Valley View: he was crashing for the weekend with Leslie Potts, a friend he’d met on MySpace years before. When he’d mentioned he needed a place to stay, Potts offered her couch.

Fair didn’t know anyone else at the complex, and had no idea, when he arrived, that a costume party was about to take over. A few of Potts’ neighbors helped him pull together a “construction worker” outfit, with a hard hat, knee pads, protective glasses, and a work belt. Potts was opening her apartment up for the party, too, so he helped her set up.

The party started around 8 p.m. There were drinks and snacks set up on tables outside, and according to witness statements, people passed between apartments and balconies pretty freely. Most people at the party remembered Fair as relatively quiet — it was a close-knit group of neighbors, and he only knew Potts. But some people said they talked to him about his work as a welding apprentice, and about the hip-hop production that he was particularly proud of lately. He even took an interest in one of the girls at the party, and got her number.

It was a party full of 20- and 30-somethings, and according to witness interviews, as the night wore on, it got predictably rowdy: there were a couple of drunken arguments between friends and roommates; one guy wouldn’t stop challenging all the larger men to arm wrestle, and accidentally bloodied Fair’s lip at one point. But going by the witness statements, it was nothing too out-of-the-ordinary, and everyone seemed to have had a good night, overall. In the photos of the party, Jinaga’s smiling, and wearing a Little Red Ridinghood costume. She’s carrying around a glass of red wine in most of them, and posing in photos with the other partygoers — including one with Fair and Potts.

Dozens of guests passed through Jinaga’s apartment that night. Fair visited her apartment twice — once earlier in the night, and once around 1 a.m. to eat pizza. She invited a few people into her bedroom, including Fair, to show them something on her laptop. He used her bathroom and made small talk, and by all accounts — including his — their interaction stopped there.

According to police interviews, Fair called it a night around 2:30 or 3 a.m., headed back to Potts’ apartment and watched some TV in the living room. Phone records show he made a handful of phone calls between 3 and 4 in the morning — some to a friend who was a former sex worker, and a few to Potts, leaving voicemails that sounded like pocket dials. Fair says that the living room was too cold, so he got in bed with Potts and fell asleep until 9 or 10 the next morning.

Jinaga headed to bed around 3 or 4 a.m., as the party was winding down. The last person to see her that night was another resident at Valley View, who told police they saw a tall man with olive skin talking to her in her doorway at 3 a.m. Her next-door neighbor heard a growling sound coming from across the wall at 8 a.m. — which he attributed either to vomiting or sex — but when he heard water running through the pipes in their shared wall, he took that to be a sign that she was okay.

Fair was still staying at Potts’ apartment when Jinaga’s body was found two days later. According to police records, her father asked a family friend to check on her because, for several days in a row, she’d missed her daily call with her family back in India, and hadn’t shown up to work on Monday morning. The friend ran into her neighbor outside of her door. The two knocked and it swung right open: the door was splintered at the jam, and the lock was broken. Inside, Jinaga’s body was on her bedroom floor, naked, covered in a sheet. According to their statements to police, they didn’t approach her, or check to see if she was alive; they ran outside and called 911.

Detective Coats has said that the thing he’ll always remember about the crime scene was the overwhelming smell of bleach. There were bleach stains on the carpet; her body was covered in motor oil from the waist down; Her fingers and fingernails were cleaned and then doused with toilet bowl cleaner; and burn marks made it look like someone had tried to burn her body and the apartment.

Jinaga had been gagged with duct tape. Her body was bruised and her teeth were — all signs that she’d put up a fight. Her tampon had been removed, and was laying beside her, but a rape kit came back negative. There were no witnesses, but based on her autopsy, the medical examiner determined that sometime between 3:30 and 8 a.m. on Nov. 1, Jinaga had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death.

He Spent Eight Years In Jail Without a Conviction. Now, He's Suing Everyone Who Kept Him There (1)

The case that left Emanuel Fair in County jail for almost nine years for this crime hinged on DNA: trace amounts found on Jinaga’s neck, her robe, and the duct tape used to restrain her.

Coats zeroed in on Emanuel about three weeks into the investigation. According to an interview with Coats by Matt Shaer — who retraced the steps of Coats’ investigation in his podcast, Suspect, and whose interviews helped inform Fair’s lawsuit — he spotted Fair for the first time in one man’s photos of the party. In a 2020 interview, Coats said he noted him because he was “the only African American male at the party” and looked like an “outsider.”

When he ran a background check, he found that Fair had a record – mostly juvenile offenses like possession of drugs and an unlicensed weapon. But the charge that surely stood out to him was from 2004: a third-degree rape charge. Fair had entered an Alford plea, which meant that he accepted the plea agreement while still maintaining his innocence — a common tactic when you can’t afford to go to trial. He spent three years in prison for the charge.

In a 2016 pretrial interview, obtained by the Suspect podcast, Coats was asked if the prior conviction was significant to his investigation. He replied: “If you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again.”

At this point, the detectives had already conducted dozens of interviews with residents of Valley View, but according to police files, they’d had a hard time pinning down Fair. Potts told police that he was having trouble with his phone — but he was also still on parole for his previous conviction, and had an outstanding warrant for failing to update his address with his parole officer.

Either way, the police seemed to use that warrant to their advantage. Rather than knocking on his door, like they did with the dozens of witnesses they’d interviewed in the previous three weeks, the detectives staked out Fair’s friend’s mom’s house in the Central District, where he’d been staying, in plain clothes and an unmarked car. When Fair walked out of the house, he says, the unmarked car started rolling toward him. “I thought I was gonna die,” Fair tells Rolling Stone. “It was like the movies, coming down slow.” The police backup pointed their guns at his chest, he says, and detectives shouted at him to calm down.

They cuffed him, put him in the back of the car, and started interviewing him on the 20 minute drive from Seattle to Redmond’s police station. He wasn’t read his rights, but according to the transcript of the interrogation, Fair did his best to answer their questions about the party. “It seemed like they needed my help,” he says. He was ultimately arrested for his parole violation, and waited in prison for the remainder of the investigation.

Then they ran his DNA. First, their lab found that his DNA matched a sample found on Jinaga’s robe that was found at the crime scene. Next, they found a match to a roll of duct tape that was likely used to tape her underwear inside her mouth like a gag. And finally, they found a match to a tiny sliver of DNA — so small that it had to be sent to a specialized lab — on the front of Jinaga’s neck.

While Fair waited in prison, detectives interrogated him three more times. The third time, Coats told Fair he was recommending that the DA charge him with first degree murder.

“This case was solved by forensic evidence,” the prosecution claimed in a 2016 court filing leading up to Fair’s first trial.

It’s true that there are no witnesses to the murder and no one ever confessed, so DNA was the strongest card in their hand. And the DNA that detectives found at the crime scene made Fair an obvious person of interest.

But some 50 people passed through the crime scene in the hours before Jinaga was murdered, so it was teeming with DNA. According to the lawsuit and the police file, three DNA samples from the crime scene were matched to people in Jinaga’s life. Unidentified male DNA was found on a bruise on her wrist; her removed tampon alone had three separate unidentified male DNA profiles on it.

In fact, police files show that there are multiple other men in Jinaga’s life that had as much, if not more, evidence against them —and several more that were never thoroughly investigated. The key difference between them and Fair, the suit alleges, is that none of them were Black.

The first was one of Jinaga’s neighbors, a white man in his twenties — the same neighbor who’d entered the apartment with Jinaga’s family friend — and an early prime suspect in the case. (Rolling Stone was not able to locate the neighbor, who we have chosen not to name, though he has denied any involvement in previous interviews.) According to the lawsuit, his fingerprints were found inside the window of Jinaga’s apartment, and his DNA was found on the motor oil bottle and a portion of wet carpet at the crime scene. A lighter was found in his apartment with a sticky substance on it that could have been motor oil, the lawsuit claims, but investigators never collected it. And according to police files, they found a list with pawnshop locations that was printed the day that Jinaga was killed (both Jinaga’s phone and digital camera were never recovered.) Several residents in the complex told investigators that this man was interested in Jinga, and one said they saw him “[exhibit] jealous behavior,” the lawsuit says, when she talked to other men at the party.

According to the transcript of his police interview, he told investigators that he heard sounds coming from her apartment around 3 a.m., and called her in the morning, around 10. But when police looked at his phone — he handed it over willingingly, during the interview — they noted that he had also called her at 2:56 a.m. and 3:02 a.m., just before the Jinaga’s estimated time of death. “Oh crap,” he responded, before insisting that he didn’t remember why he called her.

And perhaps the most stand-out detail about the investigation into the neighbor: according to interviews by the police, at 10 a.m. the morning that Jinaga was killed, he drove two hours to the Canadian border and tried to “blow through” the gates without a passport. He told detectives he wanted to “explore.”

At the end of the interview, when investigators had started putting pressure on him, he asked investigators to turn off the recording, and he discussed something that can’t be found in the police record. (When asked what the neighbor said in a pretrial interview, obtained by the Suspect podcast, Detective Coats simply said, “I don’t recall.”)

Despite the apparent evidence against him, investigators let him leave the police station — with his Blackberry, which, according to police records, he subsequently scrubbed.

Jinaga’s neighbor wasn’t the only non-Black suspect in the investigation that appears to have been treated wildly differently than Fair: In a 2020 interview, one of the prosecutors said that they zeroed in on Fair because his DNA was found on objects that were specifically related to the murder, not the clean up, but according to Fair’s lawsuit, another Valley View resident’s DNA was found on the shoelace believed to have strangled Jinaga; she’d been a part of a local motorcycle group, and police records show that two members of the group had a history of sexual crimes, and one had been sexually harassing her; police also found DNA from a third biker, who she’d been sleeping with, on her costume, and on the sheet that was draped over her body. Another resident at the apartment complex commited suicide just days after her death, and his DNA was never compared to the crime scene.

The lawsuit doesn’t claim that any of these men were Jinaga’s killer. But, it says, the evidence that implicated them was vital information to ultimately charge Emanuel with first degree murder. When police presented their case to the prosecutors they only laid out the evidence against Fair. “Under the law, ‘probable cause’ requires you to look at the whole picture,” says Ryan Dreveskracht, one of Fair’s lawyers. “You can’t leave out the fact that there was basically everyone else’s DNA at the scene, too. And they did.”

Singling out the only Black man at the party, when presented with multiple other white suspects, “can only be viewed as racial discrimination,” Fair’s lawsuit alleges.

The problems with the case don’t end with racial bias. In fact, police files illustrate mistakes that span from the elementary to the bizarre. According to police logs, in February 2010, Coats reached out to Allison DuBois — the “psychic” who was the inspiration for the CBS show Medium — asking if she could locate Jinaga’s missing camera and cell phone and if there was a witness out there that they hadn’t talked to yet.

Investigators made more mundane decisions that his lawyers say could have made the biggest impact on Fair’s case. As that 2016 court filing said, this case all comes down to forensic evidence, and Fair’s lawsuit alleges, investigators appear to have done little to preserve it. Court transcripts show that there was no policy in place that required detectives to change their gloves between collecting each DNA sample; and, the suit alleges, they didn’t secure the Valley View apartments’ dumpster, where key pieces of evidence were found, for three days after Jinaga’s body was discovered.

“There were so many mistakes in this investigation,” says Dreveskracht, who, in addition to being a civil rights lawyer, is also an appointee on the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. “It’s pretty clear that these officers weren’t adequately trained, and didn’t keep up with their training.” Ultimately, Fair’s lawsuit alleges, the investigators “employed a ‘gather the facts to fit the theory’ strategy,” that cost Fair almost a decade of his life, and robbed Jinaga of justice.

When Rolling Stone asked prosecutors to comment on the accusations in Fair’s case, they shared their own recording of an interview that Suspect‘s Shaer did in 2020 with Erin Ehlert, one of the two prosecutors in Fair’s trial. She steadfastly stood by their decision to charge Fair in Jinaga’s murder. “In my heart,” she said, “I don’t have any question about anything that we did with regards to charging; that Emanuel Fair killed Arpana Jinaga.” In their email, the prosecutor’s office wrote: “We look forward to addressing these allegations in a public courtroom; we stand by our case.”

He Spent Eight Years In Jail Without a Conviction. Now, He's Suing Everyone Who Kept Him There (2)

Now, at 38, Fair is trying to build a life from scratch.For eight years, he’d gotten used to living an isolated life. In jail, he had turned his cell into an office, “so I could act like I was out in the free world,” he says. He made a desk, and scheduled hours to read USA Today, hours to write letters, and hours to review legal texts from his lawyer. He drew portraits using toothpaste, coffee, and dye made from Skittles when he didn’t have access to art supplies. He learned to turn his socks into gloves when his cell got too cold in the winter.

A recent audit of the county jail system in King County showed that Black inmates were significantly more likely to be kept in “restrictive housing” than white inmates, and Fair was no exception. He was kept in isolation for six of those years — which meant he spent 23 hours a day in his cell. For the one hour he was allowed out, he’d take a shower, call his aunt, maybe talk to other inmates through their steel cell doors (he wasn’t allowed in the dayroom when other inmates were there). The county jail wasn’t built for long-term stays — typically not longer than a year — so he didn’t have access to any programming or education. “I was lucky for a while,” he says, “because I had a cell that looked out onto the highway, so I could watch the cars going by.”

He thought about his mom a lot: she’d died when he was 16 and she was 39. “I used to have a fear that I would die at 39, just like she did,” Fair says. While he waited for his trial, that clock ticked closer: he turned 30, then 35; his aunt started sending him newspaper clippings with family members’ obituaries. All the while, though, he had faith. “I knew I was gonna get out,” Fair says. “I just didn’t think it would take that long.”

During his trial, his aunt and uncle showed up at the courthouse every day that his case was on the docket, even if he wasn’t going to be there. His aunt packed lunch and snacks, she says, and “sat on those hard benches for hours.” She describes them as “the worst years.” Living with them now, Fair is taking small steps toward building a life of his own. He’s getting used to eating at the kitchen table again. He worked part time as a security officer for a little while — the graveyard shift, so he didn’t have to be around people. And he prefers to avoid holidays, in part because he got used to not celebrating them when he was in jail, and in part because he doesn’t want to be around family that didn’t support him when he was behind bars. “I don’t want to pretend like it doesn’t affect me,” he says.

Since his release, he exists in a strange systemic purgatory: a man who was incarcerated for nearly a decade but never convicted of a crime. Emanuel says that while he was in jail, he dreaded the possibility of being convicted and exonerated. His lawyers say that in some ways, at least, he would have been better off if he had been. “Let’s imagine that Emanuel was wrongfully convicted,” says Dreveskracht. “He would’ve spent a number of years in prison, but when he got out, he would be on parole. There would be people to help him get a job, to help him get his feet on the ground. Some very, very needed mental health care” — he suffers from depression, anxiety, and PTSD — “but because he wasn’t convicted, he’s got nothing.”

Even so, Fair says that he was reluctant to file this lawsuit at first, knowing that Jinaga’s family still hasn’t gotten justice: “there’s no resolution for this case, no resolution for her.”

But eventually, this suit seemed like the only option to try to move on from the cell he sat in for almost a decade. “We can’t bring back those years,” says Dreveskracht. “All we can do is try to get some semblance of making Emanuel whole again.”

“I’m out,” Fair says, “but I’m not free.”

He Spent Eight Years In Jail Without a Conviction. Now, He's Suing Everyone Who Kept Him There (2024)
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