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$1.2 million verdict against man accused of rape brings 'some solace,' five years later

Jen Sainato
Photo by J. Tyler Franklin
Jen Sainato

Though LMPD closed the case without an arrest, a civil jury found Nikola Jajic liable for subjecting Jen Sainato to sexual contact without her consent.

In January 2018, Jen Sainato called Louisville police in the middle of the night and said that Nikola Jajic had raped her at the downtown Marriott.

Five years later, after a two-week civil trial and three days of deliberation, a Jefferson County jury has ordered Jajic to pay Sainato almost $1.2 million for subjecting her to sexual contact without her consent.

The divided jury did not find that Jajic inflicted emotional damage on Sainato, or that Marriott was liable for overserving either of them. Sainato said the mixed verdict gave her “some peace.”

“This has given me some solace in that the jury did see that, yes, there was a sexual assault and we will hold him accountable,” Sainato said. “I feel they did the job that the police could have done.”

This civil lawsuit is separate from the criminal investigation, which the Louisville Metro Police Department quietly closed “by exception,” without making an arrest, in 2018.

Sainato’s case was the subject of a 2019 KyCIR investigation that found LMPD cleared three times as many rape cases by exception than by arrest. Rape was the only crime handled this way; at the time, LMPD had the sixth highest rate of rape cases cleared by exception in the country.

With criminal prosecution off the table, Sainato saw this civil suit as her last chance to seek justice against the man she said drugged and raped her while she was visiting Louisville for a business trip.

Jajic’s attorney, Lee Sitlinger, declined to make his client available for an interview. Sitlinger said he was disappointed by the verdict, and intends to try to get the judge to modify it.

“My client doesn't have insurance that would cover these claims, and doesn't have money to pay,” Sitlinger said. “I think Ms. Sainato wanted…verification or justification from somebody that somebody did something wrong. She got that.”

Sainato’s attorney, Laura Landenwich, said she also intends to appeal certain aspects of the case, including the judge’s instructions to jurors to apportion responsibility for the assault. They found Jajic 55% and Sainato 45% responsible.

“We think that even instructing them on that was dead wrong, and it's an appealable issue,” Landenwich said. “I think it's legally wrong to have an intentional tort be allocated to the person that's the victim of the tort.”

Twelve angry jurors

Deciding how to apportion the blame for the assault was only one in a series of knock down, drag out fights among the jurors assigned to this case.

Ben Holland, an IT professional who served on the jury, said they were starkly divided from the beginning, especially as they navigated the “cannonball”-sized holes in everyone’s stories. Five years after the initial incident, memories had faded, details were fuzzy, and investigative avenues, abandoned early by the police, were lost to time.

As a result, so much of the deliberations, Holland said, hung on jurors’ understanding of sexual assault.

“There was some antiquated thinking, in my opinion…. and I think that was holding us back for so long,” Holland said. “We had to take time out for emotional breaks, just to not come to blows. I know some people in the room were crying, myself included at times. It was very emotionally charged.”

Holland said they were initially divided six to six on the first question about sexual contact without consent; the jury needed nine votes on either side to avoid a mistrial.

“There were times, at the end of that second day, a lot of people wanted to give up,” he said. “But we had to just say, we’re not going to put Jen through this again. We’re not going to go to a mistrial.”

Landenwich said she’d never seen a jury deliberate so long on a civil case of this nature.

“Nobody likes to do jury duty. But I think they knew they were the last people who can give her some justice,” she said. “So they stayed and continued to debate. It just gives me faith in our system.”

Sainato was disappointed that Marriott’s lawyers convinced the jurors of their version of events. But, whether she ever sees a penny from Jajic, hearing the verdict against him was validating, she said.

“I finally got to hear from other people who agreed and stood by me and said, ‘Yeah, we don't believe this is right. What can we do? We can't arrest him for you. Maybe we can give you an amount that shows our community we see this isn’t acceptable,’” she said.

Cleared by exception

Sainato’s story was the subject of season one of Dig, a podcast from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, which examined how the Louisville Metro Police Department investigates rape cases.

Like nearly half of all rape cases in Louisville in 2017, LMPD closed Sainato’s case “by exception,” meaning no arrest was made.

The FBI allows police departments to use this designation only when the investigation is complete, a suspect has been identified and there is probable cause to make an arrest, but the police are unable to execute the arrest for exceptional reasons — like if the suspect is dead, or the victim asks them not to proceed.

In Louisville, most commonly, cases were cleared by exception after the prosecutor declined to take the case. At the time, LMPD screened every rape case with the Jefferson County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney before making an arrest, resulting in three times as many rape cases being cleared “by exception” than by arrest.

“I do think that we have to have better proof in these types of cases than we would in some types of cases,” Kristi Gray, a prosecutor who handles sex crimes, told KyCIR in late 2018.

But KyCIR found that LMPD did not always fully investigate cases before taking them to the prosecutor.

A still image from body camera footage of the LMPD response to Jen Sainato's hotel room on January 3, 2018.
LMPD records
A still image from body camera footage of the LMPD response to Jen Sainato's hotel room on January 3, 2018.

When police arrived at Sainato’s room at the downtown Marriott in January 2018, she was crying, panicking, and insisting that “something bad has happened.” There was blood on the sheets and, a rape kit later revealed, she had several vaginal lacerations, including one that was still bleeding.

After a patrol officer grabbed her by the arms, told her she was hysterical and asked her repeatedly how much she’d had to drink, Sainato felt too scared to talk to a detective at the hospital. So the police gathered no evidence that night, made no effort to find Jajic and didn’t interview the bartender who served them both at the hotel bar.

The police interviewed Jajic only once, six months after the initial incident, over the phone. He acknowledged that he and Sainato had sex, and that “going for this” was a mistake, since he was married. But he insisted that it was consensual.

LMPD detective Lyndsey Lynch wondered aloud to Jajic whether someone else had come into Sainato’s room and raped her after he left. The next day, she called Jajic back and said she and Gray had determined it was not “a good case to try.”

“Oh my God, thank you,” he said, according to a recording of the phone call. “You just legitimately saved my life. It could have been so much worse, I'm sure, for me, you know?”

Lynch confirmed that Jajic was “off the hook,” as he put it. No one told Sainato.

Looking back, Sainato feels that a more thorough police investigation would have strengthened her civil case against Marriott.

“Maybe if there would have been a conviction, they would have had to have taken more accountability,” she said. “But they used the lack of action from the police department to help them.”

As hard as it was to take the stand and be cross-examined for the better part of a day, Sainato said the experience ultimately helped her find some peace. But when she thinks about how much, and how long, she had to fight to eke out this mixed verdict, she mostly thinks about other victims of sexual assault in Louisville.

“There’s a lot of other women that are raped in a building that doesn’t have cameras or aren’t able to call the police,” she said. “What are those women supposed to do? They don’t have a chance.”

Eleanor Klibanoff, formerly with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, is the women's health reporter at the Texas Tribune. You can reach her at Eleanor.klib@gmail.com.

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