Rolling Stone Trial: Erdely Testimony Ends After Nearly 5 Days on Stand
A federal courtroom in Charlottesville is now in its second week hearing the defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone over a retracted article about rape at the University of Virginia.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - A federal courtroom in Charlottesville is now in its second week hearing the defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone over a retracted article about rape at the University of Virginia.
Sabrina Rubin Erdely was back on the witness stand at 8:15 a.m. Monday, October 24. Attorneys on both sides have been questioning Erdely since Wednesday afternoon.
Erdely’s article, "A Rape on Campus," was published in Rolling Stone’s November 2014 issue. In the article, a UVA student referred to as "Jackie" described being gang raped at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September of 2012. An investigation by Charlottesville police in 2015 found no evidence to back up the claims made in the article.Rolling Stone eventually retracted the article and apologized.
Nicole Eramo, then the associate dean of students at UVA, claims Erdely’s article unfairly portrayed her as indifferent to Jackie's plight and only interested in protecting the university's reputation. Eramo is seeking around $7.5 million in damages.
Attorney Elizabeth “Libby” Locke, who is part of Eramo’s legal team, is once again questioning Erdely about her interactions with Jackie.
Locke asked Erdely about an audio recording where Jackie shows the authors scars she got from her alleged rape.
Erdely testified, "I saw something, but I couldn't be sure what I saw because the lighting was so dim."
Locke pointed out to the court that Erdely's reporter notes indicate she saw nothing.
Defense attorney J. Scott Sexton later pointed out a meeting between Erdely and Jackie at the College Inn on September 12, 2014. According to Erdely’s notes she did see scars on Jackie's arms.
The plaintiff’s attorney brought up an email from September 17, 2014, where Erdely asks for someone who had seen Jackie's injuries from the gang rape, but she never asked why Jackie's story went from oral to vaginal rape.
Erdely testified, "I didn't consider it an important question."
Locke also pointed out that Erdely didn't identify herself as a journalist when entering the Phi Kappa Psi house, and did not talk to members about who is “Armpit” or “Blanket” – Jackie said that those were the nicknames of some of the men who raped her.
Erdely was questioned about the illustration of Eramo in the Rolling Stone article. The author told the court, "I didn't concern myself with the art. I was looking at the text.” Locke asked Erdely if the illustration was a fair and accurate depiction of Eramo: After a long pause, Erdely testified, "I don't know. It's hard for me to say." She added, "I don't know if there should have been a picture of her in there at all."
Locke asked if Erdely has any ill will towards Eramo, to which she replied, "no."
Erdely stepped down from the witness stand around 11:10 a.m.
Attorneys for the plaintiff then played for the jury a recorded deposition Jackie gave. The video contains Thomas Clare, one of Eramo's attorneys, asking Jackie questions about her story and the article.
Clare asked Jackie why she wrote a support letter to Eramo in the Cavalier Daily. Jackie replied, "I wanted to show my supporter of her. At the time she was very supportive. I cared about her."
Clare also mentions a warning text Jackie sent to her friend, Annie Forrest, saying to be careful speaking with Erdely because she thought the author takes things out of context.
In the tape, Jackie can be heard answering "I don't know" to many questions about the Rolling Stone article. She also again states being uncomfortable with being the focal point of the piece, and considered getting out of it.
“I felt overwhelmed and stressed, and I felt like I was getting pressure from a lot of different people," said Jackie in the tape.
When asked by Clare if she stands by her account, Jackie said "I stand by the account to Rolling Stone. I believe it to be true at the time."
Jackie explained discrepancies in her story by saying it depended on her comfort level for sharing with a person. She said several times, "some of the details are foggy,” and that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Defense attorney Elizabeth McNamara cross examined Jackie after Clare.
McNamara pointed to positive comments Jackie made about Eramo that were in the published version of the article. Jackie said, “She [Erdely] did her best to reflect what I told her [in article].”
On redirect with Clare, Jackie said of Eramo, "she wanted to see the university in a better place. She always left that door very open to me.”
Jackie admitted to reading part of Liz Securro's 2011 book, “Crash Into Me: A Survivor’s Search for Justice.” The book is about Securro’s life being put in turmoil after receiving a letter of apology from the man who raped her in 1984, back when she was a 17-year-old student at UVA.
Attorneys stopped Jackie’s video deposition tape a little before 3:30 p.m. Jackie is not expected to actually be in the courtroom for this lawsuit.
Elisabeth Garber-Paul was the next witness to take the stand. It was Garber-Paul's job to fact-check the article, which she had nine days to do.
Garber-Paul had previous experience with fact-checking, but she said she did not receive any formal training at Rolling Stone. Garber-Paul testified that the magazine did not have written policies or procedures for fact-checking at the time of "A Rape on Campus".
Andy Phillips, an attorney for Eramo, drilled Garber-Paul on the fact-checking process for the article.
He brought up examples in her fact-checking edits where she asks if statements from friends of Jackie quoted in the article should be "put on" Jackie instead of directly from them, because Erdely only heard them from Jackie's recount.
Garber-Paul, Erdely, and her editor, Sean Woods, ultimately decided to not follow through with Jackie's friends to confirm they said what Jackie said they did. Garber-Paul went on to say, "though in retrospect, I wish we had."
Garber-Paul confirmed Rolling Stone had the first names of the other rape victims Jackie talks about in the article at the time it was printed, but did not speak to anyone except Jackie. When Phillips asked Garber-Paul if these other victims exist, she replied, "I don't know either way."
The trial wrapped up a little after 6 p.m. for the day.
The jury trial began on Monday, October 17, and is scheduled to last 10 days. Only seven jurors, to be specified later, will ultimately deliberate; three will be alternates.