Fighting for justice: Two public defenders worked for years to get their client acquitted

Ben Goldsmith and Katharine Edwards advanced a straightforward theory about why Emanuel Fair should be acquitted in the murder of Arpana Jinaga, whose body was found in her Redmond apartment on Nov. 1, 2008. Someone else murdered the young software engineer.

Ben and Katharine

Ben Goldsmith and Katharine Edwards amassed 30,000 pages of discovery in their defense of Emanuel Fair. (Paul Vernon was co-counsel before Katharine joined the team.) (Photo by Leslie Brown)

It took them two trials and 30,000 pages of discovery to make their case. They submitted dozens of pretrial motions, sought the advice of eight expert witnesses, and spent some 8,000 hours of their time. And it cost Emanuel Fair nearly nine years of his life spent sitting inside a cell at the King County jail. He was charged with first-degree murder with sexual motivation. Bail was set at $5 million.

But the two public defenders at the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD) finally prevailed on June 11, when a jury of 11 men and one woman delivered a verdict of not guilty. Mr. Fair walked out of jail on that sunny Tuesday afternoon, looked up at the sky, hugged his waiting aunt, thanked his lawyers, and drove away. Nina Elmore, a mitigation specialist for DPD, is now in contact with him, offering him help in putting his life back together.

“Usually, once a verdict has been handed down, the role of the social worker ends,” Nina said. “But in Mr. Fair’s case, he’s been incarcerated for nearly nine years. I’m trying to help him get his life back in order.”

For the two public defenders, they felt both enormous relief and considerable emotion when the verdict was announced. “I was hoping for this result but was not necessarily expecting it,” Ben said. “It was a just result and a huge relief.”

It was also exceedingly rare. In his 16 years as a public defender, Ben cannot recall ever seeing an acquittal in a murder case where the defense claimed that the prosecution charged an innocent person, in part, he said, because juries in King County tend to believe prosecutors would not charge an innocent person. “There’s an assumption that in a murder case, there will be a conviction,” he said. “An acquittal, especially for a person of color, is extraordinarily rare.” (Mr. Fair is African-American.)

The evidence against another suspect was considerable, a white neighbor who quickly hired a well-known criminal defense lawyer. Indeed, the DNA evidence the prosecution used against Mr. Fair was equally applicable to the neighbor, whose erratic behavior (after she was killed but before her body had been discovered, he took off for Canada), his prior involvement with her, and other evidence all made him the prime suspect in the case.

Members of the defense bar, as well as several high-profile members of the community, tried unsuccessfully to get the prosecutor’s office to drop the charges against Mr. Fair. “It was just unbelievable to me that this case went to trial in the first place,” Katharine said. Added Ben: “We gave them every opportunity to do the right thing.”

Mr. Fair’s first case was before Judge Mariane Spearman, where Ben and his co-counsel at the time, Paul Vernon, began by arguing one pre-trial motion after another. “The way most trials work is that you win or lose based on your level of preparation and pre-trial litigation. Because we had prepared the case so thoroughly and won some important motions, that gave us a chance for success,” Ben said.

The defense team lost one key motion – an attempt to force a company to reveal its source code for a software that allegedly showed that DNA found at the crime scene was a likely match to that of Mr. Fair. The software, called TrueAllele, and others like it have come under growing scrutiny in large part because the developers are refusing to reveal their source code, denying defense the opportunity to point out errors in the coding programs. But the defense won other critical motions, including a motion to exclude their client’s criminal history and another allowing the admission of critical evidence implicating the neighbor.

The case before Judge Spearman began in October 2016. It ended in a hung jury in April  2017.

There was no time for celebration, however. The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office immediately announced they would try Mr. Fair again, and Mr. Fair was escorted back to the King County jail.

During the second trial, there were other key moments for the defense, Ben noted. “The judge gave us relatively fair rulings during voir dire, which gave us a chance at a good jury,” he said. The lawyers’ cross of a Redmond detective also proved powerful; it became clear in that cross that the detectives had cajoled the neighbor to “shake a memory loose,” as transcripts from the detective’s interview showed, so as to become a better witness for the prosecution as opposed to “an asset for the defense.”

The two attorneys built on the pretrial motion success of their first trial, chipping away at the state’s argument and casting doubt on the state’s assertion that they had the right man. Ben’s closing lasted two hours and twenty minutes.

Ben, who supervises the felony unit in one of the divisions at DPD, has never been on a case as long as this one, and he measures the time he spent by noting the changes in his younger daughter’s life: When he started the case, she was two months old; by the time he had finished, she was reading books and playing soccer.

But he knows that Mr. Fair measured the time quite differently – as an innocent man sitting in a jail cell, far from home, from loved ones, from freedom. And he worries about the toll these two trials exacted.

“If I had been in jail for 8 ½ years, I know my life would be in shambles,” Ben said. “Being in a box for that length of time is extremely unhealthy. Fortunately, he has friends and family trying to help him. We’re trying to help him, too.”

Editor’s note: This is the first of several articles For the Defense plans to post about significant legal victories by the King County Department of Public Defense. Next, we’ll look at a case involving a Kent man who was acquitted of a second-degree murder charge.

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