CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Making their final pitches to jurors, attorneys sparred in court Tuesday over whether the writer of a botched Rolling Stone article about a brutal gang rape at the University of Virginia was the victim of an elaborate ruse or an agenda-driven reporter with little regard for the facts.
After hearing more than two weeks' worth of evidence, jurors are expected to begin deliberating Wednesday to decide whether Rolling Stone and author Sabrina Rubin Erdely defamed university administrator Nicole Eramo in their 2014 story about the alleged sexual assault of the woman identified only as "Jackie."
Eramo claims she was unfairly portrayed as trying to sweep Jackie's sexual assault under the rug to protect the university and is seeking $7.5 million from the magazine.
An attorney for Eramo argued that Erdely set out from the beginning to tell a story of "institutional indifference," ignored from her sources that didn't fit that preconceived narrative and pushed her own views about the administration onto the vulnerable women she was interviewing.
"Once they decided what the article was going to be about, it didn't matter what the facts were," attorney Tom Clare said.
The story about Jackie's rape set off a firestorm at the University of Virginia and in schools nationwide and prompted police to launch an investigation into the alleged assault. Eramo received hundreds of angry letters and emails and faced protesters outside her office. The story crumbled after other news outlets began asking questions and police found no evidence to back up Jackie's claims. The article was officially retracted in April 2015.
There are only three statements about Eramo in the article in question, including one in which she is quoted — through Jackie — as saying that the university doesn't publish all of its statistics about sexual assault because "nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school." Eramo also claims that Erdely defamed her in statements she made on a radio program and podcast after the article was published.
The judge has dismissed Eramo's claim that the story, when taken as a whole, implied that Eramo was a "false friend" to Jackie — a claim that Rolling Stone called a "critical element" of her case.
Eramo must prove that Rolling Stone statements about her made her appear "odious, infamous or ridiculous" and that the magazine acted with "actual malice," meaning it knew that what it was writing about her was false or entertained serious doubts as to whether it might be true.
Scott Sexton, an attorney for Rolling Stone, said that Erdely and Rolling Stone editors have proven repeatedly that they never had any doubts about Jackie's story before it was published. Sexton urged jurors to put themselves in Erdely's shoes at the time of her reporting and questioned why it would be unreasonable for the writer to believe Jackie when the university itself had taken the woman's gang rape claim seriously.
"Everyone who encountered this young woman believed her," Sexton said. "Yet we are the ones, in a sense, being tried for having believed her."
Rolling Stone has agreed to pay all of Erdely's legal costs and any penalties that may be levied against her.
Over the course of the more than two-week trial, the 10 jurors have watched 11 hours of video testimony, heard from a dozen live witnesses and have examined nearly 300 exhibits. Jurors will first decide whether the statements in the article defamed Eramo before they consider monetary damages. Attorneys had initially said that seven jurors will deliberate and three will serve as alternates, but Libby Locke, an attorney for Eramo, said Tuesday that all 10 jurors are expected to deliberate Wednesday.