Suspect: If you are a true crime devotee, this may be exactly what you ordered

Podcast review: A reminder that the criminal justice process seldom brings the tidy resolution we crave

How to reinvent the never-failing true crime podcast? And what if it ain’t broke? Suspect, from the Wondery podcast network and now two seasons in, tries something conceptually new at least: what if rather than focus on the crime itself, we zone in on the system in place to deliver justice in its wake. How do detectives, lawyers, and jurors make decisions about who gets punished and who walks free? And can we ever really know, beyond a reasonable doubt, what happened?

Season one, narrated by Matthew Shaer, examined the murder of a 24-year-old software developer, Arpana Jinaga, in 2008. Jinaga was killed after a Halloween party in her apartment complex in Redmond, Washington, leading to a bizarre situation where the suspects were all in costume. But investigators thought they had their man when a neighbour’s story began to fall apart. And so, to be honest, did the listener.

Then focus shifted to another man: Emmanuel Fair, the only black man at the party, whose DNA was found on various items associated with Jinaga’s murder. DNA evidence was supposed to be the definitive, scientific proof cutting through the noise of human bias. The trouble was, Fair’s wasn’t the only DNA found there after a party in which attendees were in and out of each other’s apartments. But Fair was arrested, spending nine years in jail until he was ultimately found not guilty in a trial where his defence team pointed to the neighbour once again.

In season two, investigative journalist Ashley Fantz takes us back to 1984 and the disappearance of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews, whose kidnapping caught the attention of then former US president Ronald Reagan. Again, we have a suspect: the son of a neighbour who was visiting the night Jonelle disappeared. Again, investigators think they have their man. But this time, they don’t shift their focus to another suspect, even though one is practically waving his arms in their faces. For years Steven Pankey has been telling anyone he can that he knows something about the murder, and asking investigators for immunity in exchange for information. It’s like he can’t stop talking about it. When he is eventually arrested and tried, jurors cannot come to an agreement and a mistrial is declared. We hear from a juror who believes they let a guilty man walk free.


If it all feels a little unsatisfying, that might be the point. It’s a rare true crime that can be neatly wrapped and understood. But Suspect is nonetheless a well scripted, deeply sourced, expertly edited exemplar of its genre: Shaer and Fantz are experienced professionals, and they bring their journalistic chops to the subject.

If you are a true crime devotee, this may be exactly what you’ve ordered. But whether Suspect’s particular slant brings something really new to the table is a different question altogether. In season two, Fantz does her best to trace a clear line through a messy story. But with so many dead leads and so much buried evidence and contradictory testimony, it’s no wonder jurors had difficulty agreeing.

At the very end of the last episode, we hear about Pankey’s second trial, which took place late last year. This second trial led to his conviction, in part thanks to the introduction of two new witnesses. For Jonelle’s family, it was closure a long time coming. For the listener, though, the six episodes that bring us there serve as a reminder that the process of criminal justice seldom brings the tidy or timely resolution that we crave.

Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and journalist