Rolling Stone Trial: UVA Officials and Friend of Jackie Testify
The ninth day of court in a defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine on the now-retracted article "A Rape on Campus," began with testimony from a UVA dean.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - The ninth day of court in the defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine on the now-retracted article "A Rape on Campus," began with testimony from a dean with the University of Virginia.
Charlottesville jurors heard several hours of testimony from UVA Dean of Students Allen Groves in a federal courtroom Wednesday. Groves was on the stand for most of the morning, answering questions from attorneys about the Rolling Stone article and his interactions with Nicole Eramo.
The magazine published "A Rape on Campus" by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in its November 2014 issue. The article centered on "Jackie", then a UVA student, who 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.
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. She filed a lawsuit against Rolling Stone, publisher Wenner Media, and Erdely. Eramo is seeking around $7.5 million in damages.
Groves seemed to indicate to plaintiff's attorney Thomas Clare that Erdely's article affected Eramo's ability to work with students. Groves said they were warned that students "would believe Nicole [Eramo] was somehow not capable," adding that if students believed the system is biased then they will not come forward.
According to Groves, the university believed Eramo was still capable of doing her job, but was hit with a perception issue.
Eramo lost the title of dean when she was moved out of her office on March 1, 2015. Groves told the court that “dean” is a prestigious title, one that was important to Eramo.
Groves became emotional during cross-examination by defense attorney William Paxton. The dean mentioned Hannah Graham, who was murdered, and another student’s suicide.
Groves says he never read an email attachment from Emily Renda about what she planned to say to Congress. Renda, a UVA staff member at the time of the article’s publication, as well as a survivor of sexual assault, had testified earlier in the lawsuit.
Paxton pointed to a 2011 Office of Civil Rights complaint where a student thought her case was handled inappropriately. Eramo was the chair of UVA's sexual assault misconduct board at the time of that complaint.
Groves replied, “We have critics.”
He also weighed in on a discussion of public relations prior to Rolling Stone publishing the article. In a Sept. 9, 2014, email, he wrote "I'd prefer not to do it at all," and that he believed the magazine had not been objective in recent years.
Groves decided not to have Eramo interview with Rolling Stone because she couldn't speak specifics about cases due to legal reasons.
However, Paxton asked Groves about Eramo being allowed to be interviewed in the fall of 2014 for an article about sexual misconduct for University of Virginia Magazine.
Paxton then asked about Eramo being interviewed on camera with WUVA just a few weeks before “A Rape on Campus” was released.
The defense attorney informed the jury about an “initial report” meeting between Eramo and Jackie that occurred on May 20, 2013. Paxton argued that the university knew that one of the two fraternities with “Phi” in its name was involved, and that the attacker worked with IM-Rec.
Groves said UVA did not attempt to investigate the alleged attack, nor did it pull employment records at IM-Rec., but said "the decision was made to support Jackie". He told the court that he was hopeful more information would come out so that an investigation could move forward.
"I was angry at the fact that Jackie wouldn't give us a name," Groves said on the stand.
The dean said he had multiple meetings in May with UVA Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Susan Davis and UVA President Teresa Sullivan.
Groves said he had even sought legal options to force Jackie to speak to investigators: He spoke with Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman in the fall of 2014. Chapman was said to have been worried about "tipping” off Phi Kappa Psi.
Groves talked about ending the university’s agreement with Phi Kappa Psi, telling jurors, "I was interested in putting these people in jail and shutting down the fraternity."
UVA Associate Dean of Students Laurie Casteen was called to testify. Attorney Clare asked Casteen to go over the advocate report she filed when she met with Jackie over concerns following the publication of the article. UVA Police Officer Benjamin Rexrode was also present.
Casteen told the court that she got Jackie connected with attorney Palma Pustilnik right after “A Rape on Campus” came out. She went on to say Jackie declined to comment during a meeting with Charlottesville police.
Casteen said Jackie was "in panic" a lot after the article was released.
During cross-examination with Paxton, Casteen said Jackie appeared credible to her.
Alexandria “Alex” Pinkleton, one of Jackie’s friends, then took the witness stand. Eramo had handled Pinkleton’s own case of sexual assault.
Pinkleton has previously said that she was upset with how Erdely’s article depicted Eramo. Additionally, she believed some of her own quotes in the piece were misinterpreted, saying “I would clarify that I did not mean anyone is intentionally covering up rapes here.”
When asked by attorney Clare about how she felt about her portrayal in the article, Pinkleton said, "I was offended."
Pinkleton also found Jackie no longer credible, telling McNamara during cross-examination, ‘I was angry at the time about a lot of things."
She later told the jury,"[Jackie] told me lots of things that were horrific, but not true."
Attorney McNamara showed the court a card Pinkleton sent Eramo: One side shows a sketch of the UVA Rotunda with a handwritten bubble coming from it saying, "[Expletive] Rolling Stone -TJ". The other side of the card has a handwritten note that includes the words, "Cheers to a successful lawsuit."
"We heard two very compelling witnesses today really talk about Nicole's stellar reputation and how they read the article as just such a negative portrayal of Dean Eramo, and how unfortunate it was," said Libby Locke, one of Eramo's attorneys.
A videotaped deposition of John Ritter from May 13, 2016, was then played for the jury. Ritter is a self-employed illustrator, and is not paying for legal counsel from Rolling Stone.
Ritter created the illustrations for “A Rape on Campus”, including the graphic that depicts Eramo. He says he spent the majority of his time on creating the main image for the article.
In the deposition, Ritter says he started working on the images based on a draft version of the article he received from Rolling Stone.
Sean Woods, the deputy managing editor at Rolling Stone, was the last witness to take the stand for the day. In addition to being the designated representative for Rolling Stone, LLC. an Wenner Media, he was also the assigning editor for a number of articles Erdely wrote for the magazine, including "A Rape on Campus."
Woods testified that he was the one that received Erdely's pitch for "A Rape on Campus" and ultimately approved it, saying, "I thought it was a solid pitch."
"Through this part of the trial, so far, we've still not heard any evidence that would establish that their was any actual malice in this case whatsoever," Paxton said.
Court ended for the day at 5:50 p.m. and will resume Thursday at 8 a.m. Woods will be back on the stand to start off the trial's 10th 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.