Listen to the brand-new episode of Dig in the player above.
A representative from the Louisville Metro Police Department will testify before city lawmakers Wednesday about the agency’s process for reviewing and closing rape investigations.
The Metro Council’s Public Safety Committee has called Lt. Shannon Lauder to answer questions in the wake of KyCIR’s “Prosecution Declined” investigation, which found nearly half of all rape cases reported to LMPD are cleared by “exception,” rather than by arrest.
In most of those cases, police said an arrest was not possible because the prosecutor declined the case before an arrest was made. KyCIR found that the police were often screening cases with the prosecutor before a thorough investigation had been conducted.
Lauder runs the special victims unit, which includes sex crimes investigations. The testimony will come as Louisville’s sex crimes prosecutor is raising new questions about a case featured in KyCIR’s reporting.
Louisville Metro Councilwoman Jessica Green, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, asked Lauder to testify in front of the eight-person committee. She also asked the Jefferson County Commonwealth Attorney’s office to send a representative, but has not confirmed whether any prosecutors will attend.
Green, a former domestic violence prosecutor with the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, said police and prosecutors are sending the wrong message to victims.
“It’s essentially a message of … don’t report, because if you do, and start the process, you’re going to be disappointed,” Green said. “You’re going to be let down, and you’re never going to have your day in court.”
KyCIR’s investigation found that fewer people report rapes per capita in Louisville than in any of its peer cities. The city’s arrest rate in rape cases in 2017 was only 15 percent, far below the national average. And the cases that did end in an arrest were almost all pled down to a lesser charge.
Of 194 reported rapes in 2017, four people were convicted of rape, KyCIR’s investigation found.
The committee meeting is Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall, 601 W Jefferson Street. It is open to the public.
In Cleared Case, Prosecutor Points Back at Police As Cause
Jen Sainato plans to drive down from Valparaiso, Indiana, to attend that meeting.
“There needs to be some checks and balances,” she said. “And it seems like that’s what’s happening now.”
Sainato’s case was highlighted in the Prosecution Declined investigation and KyCIR’s podcast, Dig. In January 2018, she told LMPD officers she was raped by a man she’d met at a hotel bar.
Six officers responded that night, crowding into her hotel room. One asked her repeatedly how much she’d had to drink and later told other officers that they “get these a lot in the hotels” — people drink too much, take someone back to their rooms and then say they got raped.
More than two years later, no arrests have been made.
Instead, LMPD cleared the case by exception last year, using the designation “prosecution declined.” According to the LMPD file, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Kristi Gray had reviewed the case and declined to prosecute the suspect, citing a lack of evidence.
During our reporting, LMPD reopened Sainato’s case after she provided additional medical records documenting injuries she says she sustained during the rape. Last Sainato heard, the police were reviewing the medical records and planned to bring the case back to the prosecutor for another review.
But as Sainato continued to press for answers, the prosecutor made a startling allegation.
In a phone call with Sainato, a recording of which KyCIR has reviewed, Gray said she never declined to prosecute the case in the first place.
Gray declined an interview request with KyCIR, but confirmed in an email exchange that she had reviewed the case on two occasions. Both times, she said, she told the police she needed more information to decide how to proceed.
Gray told KyCIR the last time she reviewed the case was in November 2018, when she told Sgt. Tim Stokes and Detective Lindsey Lynch that she wanted to wait until the DNA tests were complete to screen the case.
“There was additional information needed before we could decide whether we could proceed with any prosecution,” she wrote. “It was not a decision to decline prosecution.”
But in emails, documents and interviews, LMPD officials tell a different story.
After the DNA tests came back in May 2019, Stokes emailed Sainato’s attorney. He wrote, “based on this DNA evidence and the investigation, the case was presented to the Commonwealth Attorney for review. The case was thoroughly screened and investigated. At this time, the Commonwealth has declined prosecution.”
He reiterated that in an October 2019 email to Sainato, who had reached out after KyCIR informed her that her case had been cleared by exception. He wrote that the investigation had been “very detailed, broad in scope, and extremely thorough.” He said the entire case file had been presented to the prosecutors after the investigation concluded and, “at this time, prosecution has been declined.”
In an email a few days later, Stokes was even more specific: “In this matter, all available information was presented to the prosecutor. Victim interviews, scene information, lab reports, surveillance video, body camera video, medical records, witness interviews, and suspect interviews, et al have been included in the file.”
Sainato’s LMPD file also contains a case status form, signed by Lynch, that says Gray screened and declined the case. It is dated October 15, 2019, the same day LMPD responded to KyCIR’s request to review the case file.
Lynch hung up on a reporter who called her desk phone. An LMPD spokesperson refused to answer questions about when and whether the case was declined, instead directing all questions to Gray’s office.
“I am outraged,” said Sainato. “It just makes you wonder, did [Lynch] never believe me? Or does she just need to get a different job?”
Closed Cases A Concern For Some City Officials
This is just one of the developments that council members will be able to ask Lauder about next Wednesday.
Several have expressed concerns about KyCIR’s findings.
“I would be interested in knowing the reason for all of those…closed cases,” said Councilwoman Barbara Sexton-Smith, a Democrat who represents the downtown district, including the Marriott where Sainato reported a rape. “It appears that victims in Louisville are tending not to receive the justice that is very much deserved.”
Markus Winkler, the chair of the Democratic Caucus, said he would reserve judgment until he learned more from the police. But he was concerned by many of the numbers cited in the story.
“I’m not naive enough to think that instances of sex crimes in Jefferson County are disporportionately lower than they would be in other areas,” said Winkler. “Just because it might be difficult to prove doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prosecute these cases.”
Council president David James, a frequent critic of police chief Steve Conrad, agreed with his colleagues. But in this case, he said the blame goes higher than the police or the prosecutors.
“I think that you all should put some pressure on the mayor,” said James, a former police officer. “He’s the one that hires the police chief. Does he think this is okay?”
Mayor Greg Fischer hired Conrad in 2012 and has stood by the embattled police chief through several no confidence votes and a child sex abuse scandal that put two officers in federal prison.
In a statement issued a few days after the story ran, Fischer said he was “confident LMPD places a priority on getting justice for [rape] victims” as exemplified by “daily officer interactions with victims.” He applauded the department’s pursuit of grant funding for domestic violence and human trafficking initiatives.
Fischer’s office did not respond to follow-up questions.
Eleanor Klibanoff can be reached at (502) 814.6544 or email@example.com.