Rolling Stone Defamation Trial: Erdely Testimony Continues
Sabrina Erdely, the author behind a now-retracted Rolling Stone article, is still testifying before jurors about her reporting process in rare Saturday session in Federal Court in Charlottesville.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - The author of the retracted Rolling Stone article continued to testify in defense of her reporting in a defamation lawsuit during a Saturday session of Federal Court in Charlottesville.
Sabrina Erdely is defending her reporting for “A Rape on Campus” published in November, 2014. Erdely, Rolling Stone Magazine, and its publisher are facing a multi-million-dollar lawsuit from Former University of Virginia Associate Dean, Nicole Eramo.
In the article, a UVA student referred to as "Jackie" described being gang raped at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at UVA in September of 2012. Details in the article did not hold up under scrutiny by other media organizations. An investigation by Charlottesville police in 2015 found no evidence to back up the claims made in the article. Rolling Stone Magazine retracted the article and apologized.
Eramo claims the article unfairly targeted her, portraying her as indifferent to Jackie's plight and only interested in protecting the university's reputation. She is seeking $7.5 million in damages.
On the stand Saturday, Erdely recalled the night she, Jackie and others walked by the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, when Jackie broke down and had to leave. Erdely testified, “I knew it was genuine.”
Defense attorney J. Scott Sexton, who is cross-examining Erdely, asked how she feels now knowing it was not true. Erdely testified, “It makes me confused,” adding “I don’t know what happened to Jackie. I feel certain something happened to her.”
Erdely spoke about going into the fraternity house after Jackie left, to verify the layout of the house was as Jackie described. She said, “It was the way she had described it.”
The questioning turned to an interview Erdely conducted with Jackie’s roommate to confirm Jackie’s depression story described in the article. During the interview, Soltis told Erdely Jackie’s rape happened in her 2nd year, not her 1st; it was oral, not vaginal; and six men, not seven men, as Jackie told Erdely.
Erdely testified it’s not uncommon for trauma victims to get details wrong. She said that Solstice did not think the discrepancy was significant, and neither did she.
The jury saw a text message exchange between Erdely and Jackie from November 20, 2014 – just days after the article’s publication. The message from Jackie to Erdely read in part, “I thought the article was really great.” It continued, “I’m still slightly overwhelmed but thank you for everything… I hope this will do a lot of good amidst all the insanity right now.”
Sexton appeared to be illustrating Jackie was happy with the article as published and didn’t dispute it.
The defense also talked about the Columbia Journalism Review of the article, highlighting points from the report, such as Erdely believed what she wrote.
Erdely testified, “This was the furthest thing from drive-by journalism.”
Sexton and Erdely also went point for point through the defamation counts in the lawsuit.
Sexton brings up that another witness may bring up that Erdely wanted Eramo fired, but Erdely tells him she never wanted that to happen. Erdely and Sexton also described emails between them showing Erdely’s consistency to get in touch with people to confirm Jackie’s story.
Due to traveling logistics, Erdely was excused from the witness stand for now. The plaintiff called Brian Head, President of One in Four and 2015 UVA Graduate to testify. He said Eramo was involved with various groups including One in Four, and that “She had a positive reputation” prior to the article.
Eramo cried as Head praised her and talked about the portrayal in the article. He said, “It was the complete opposite of what I know.”
A single quote about student life on grounds from Head was used in the article. Head testified that he was interviewed over the phone for about an hour and half for the article in the summer of 2014. He said, “I was confused because I was interviewed in my capacity as President of One in Four,” touching on the fact that Erdely left that and other information he provided out of the article.
Head testified that reflecting back after publication, “I felt I was not treated honestly.”
During cross-examination from Defense attorney David Paxton, Head did say the quote in the article was not a misquote. Head also testified, “It did not change my opinion of Nicole Eramo.”
Court ended for the day shortly after 1p.m. Sabrina Erdely will return to the witness stand Monday morning for re-direct questioning from the Plaintiff. She has been testifying since Wednesday, October 19.
The jury trial began on Monday, October 17. It is scheduled to last 10 days but could run longer. Only seven jurors, to be specified later, will ultimately deliberate; three will be alternates.
Jackie is not expected to take stand in the trial, Instead, Eramo's attorneys plan to play her videotaped deposition when court resumes Monday.