Jury finds reporter, Rolling Stone responsible for defaming U-Va. dean with gang rape story

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - A federal court jury decided Friday that a Rolling Stone journalist defamed a former University of Virginia associate dean in a 2014 magazine article about sexual assault on campus that included a debunked account of a frat...

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - A federal court jury decided Friday that a Rolling Stone journalist defamed a former University of Virginia associate dean in a 2014 magazine article about sexual assault on campus that included a debunked account of a fraternity gang rape.

The 10 member jury concluded that the Rolling Stone journalist was responsible for defamation, with actual malice, in the case brought by Nicole Eramo, a U-Va. administrator who oversaw sexual violence cases at the time of the article's publication. The jury also found the magazine and its publisher responsible for defaming Eramo.

The $7.5 million lawsuit centered on the 9,000-word article written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely titled "A Rape on Campus." The article appeared online in late Nov. 2014 and on newsstands in the magazine's December 2014 issue.

The story opened with a graphic depiction of a fraternity gang rape that went viral online and sent shock waves across the U-Va. campus community. But within days of the article's publication, key elements of the account fell apart under scrutiny. The magazine eventually retracted the story in April 2015.

Eramo's lawsuit came a month later, alleging that the magazine's portrayal of her as callous and dismissive of rape reports on campus was untrue and unfair.


The jurors reached a verdict Friday after deliberating across three days.

The trial began on Oct. 17. In the following 16 days the jurors heard testimony from 12 witnesses along with 11 hours of video statements and more than 180 exhibits of evidence.

Both Eramo and Erdely took the stand in the case. The jurors also saw video testimony from Jackie, the U-Va. student whose allegations of a 2012 gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi were later cast into doubt.

Eramo's lawyers wrote in their complaint that the magazine defamed her by casting the former associate dean as a villain in the article, portraying her as the public face of an administration indifferent to rape victims.

In court, lawyers representing Erdely, Rolling Stone and its corporate parent company, Wenner Media, argued the opposite. The lawyers contended that while the magazine acknowledged its mistakes it had not acted with actual malice, the high bar set for defamation cases involving public figures like Eramo.

Tom Clare, one of the lawyers representing Eramo, said in a closing statement Tuesday that his client was "collateral damage in a quest for sensational journalism."

Reading from a Columbia University Journalism School report on the Rolling Stone article, Clare said that the magazine made basic errors in reporting and the result was "a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable."

Clare noted that Jackie's account to Rolling Stone was brutal and so vile that it seemed unbelievable.


"It had all the elements of a perfect story," Clare said. "And when something appears too perfect it usually is."

In fact, it was.

An investigation by The Washington Post showed that aspects of Jackie's account were not true, including that no one in the fraternity matched the name or description she gave for the person who allegedly was the ringleader of her assault. A person she had described to friends at the time as her assailant was a complete fiction, according to Eramo's lawyers, and the Post found that a photo she shared of her alleged attacker was actually of someone she knew from high school and who attended a different school out of state.

Eramo's lawyers presented evidence that Erdely had a predetermined notion of what her story would be, discussing the concept of the story that became "A Rape on Campus" well ahead of her reporting, including a note describing how college administrations can be "indifferent" to rape survivors.

Eramo's lawyers said that Erdely had "a preconceived story line," and acted with "reckless disregard," by ignoring conflicting information in her reporting.

"Once they decided what the story was going to be about, it didn't matter what the facts were," Clare said.

Clare noted that despite Rolling Stone's reporting, Eramo had indeed cared for Jackie in the aftermath of her alleged assault, counseling her and organizing a meeting with police detectives to help bring her attackers to justice. But Jackie refused to participate in any police investigation.

Scott Sexton, a lawyer for Rolling Stone, told the jurors in his closing statement that the magazine "acknowledges huge errors in not being more dogged. . . . It's the worst thing to ever happen to Rolling Stone."


Sexton said that the article's retraction cost Erdely her job at Rolling Stone and her reputation as a journalist.

"She hasn't written a classified since then," Sexton said.

Sexton said that in effect Erdely and Rolling Stone had fallen victim to what he called at points a "hoax," a "fraud," and a "perfect storm."

The magazine's editorial staff was no match for Jackie, Sexton said, noting that the magazine was not sure what exactly had happened to her, but admitted "she deceived us and we do know it was purposeful."

"This young woman was very good at telling this story," Sexton said. "Dean Eramo believed her. . . .Yet we are the ones being tried, in a sense, for having believed her."

The case continues this week as the jury will consider damages and hear additional evidence from Eramo and her lawyers about how she was affected by the actions of Rolling Stone. Eramo originally asked for $7.5 million but can ask for a different sum after the verdict.



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