Day 1: Jurors selected in Eramo v. Rolling Stone defamation trial

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Day 1:  Jurors selected in Eramo v. Rolling Stone defamation trial

Nearly two years after Rolling Stone put UVA in the national spotlight with an article called “A Rape on Campus,” 100 potential jurors crammed into U.S. District Court October 17 for the start of a 12-day trial to determine whether the magazine, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely and Wenner Media LLC defamed former UVA associate dean Nicole Eramo.

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Defendant Sabrina Rubin Erdely, second from left, and a phalanx of lawyers head into court. Photo Eze Amos

 

The story of first-year Jackie’s brutal gang rape in 2012 at Phi Kappa Psi roiled the university community with angry protests, vandalism and a suspension of fraternity social events—until Jackie’s story unraveled. Charlottesville police investigated and could find no evidence the attack took place, an investigation with which Jackie refused to cooperate. Rolling Stone asked the Columbia School of Journalism to investigate, and its scathing 13,000-word assessment called it “a journalistic failure that was avoidable.” Rolling Stone retracted the story.

In May 2015, Eramo filed suit seeking $7.85 million. Phi Kappa Psi and three of its members have also sued. The members’ suit was thrown out, but the fraternity’s case is scheduled to be heard next year.

Widespread publicity was a concern with seating a jury, hence the 100 citizens called in to make up a jury of 10, including three alternates. However, when the jurors were asked, nine had heard nothing at all about the article that became a national sensation.

Even last week, Rolling Stone filed hasty motions for sanctions against Eramo when it learned her lawyers had provided ABC’s “20/20″ with deposition videos that ABC aired October 14—three days before the trial was scheduled to begin.

The show featured Eramo, who described her fear of being fired after the story came out, and Erdely, who said she had believed Jackie.

“I have a feeling the judge is not happy they leaked it before trial,” says legal expert David Heilberg, who is not connected with the case. “That’s really bad form because it prejudices the jury pool.”

Judge Glen Conrad ruled that any depositions turned over to “20/20” could not be used in the trial. But, as Heilberg pointed out, Erdely is going to have to testify anyway because a civil trial does not offer Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.

During the lengthy voir dire, potential jurors were questioned about their connections to UVA. Not surprisingly, 61 of them worked at or had attended the school, or had a family member who did. They were also asked if they’d ever been plaintiffs in a civil case—and whether they thought there’s too much litigation. They were asked if they had been victims of sexual assault, or if members of fraternities were more likely to commit sexual assault, the latter a question asked by Rolling Stone’s attorney Scott Sexton that Judge Conrad called argumentative and did not allow.

It was after 1pm when 34 jurors were dismissed, and Conrad plowed on through the lunch hour with more questioning.

The inquiry that had more than half the remaining jurors raising their hands: Who just doesn’t trust the media?

It was after 2pm when Conrad reminded the hungry jurors that jury duty was “one of the most important functions citizens can perform.” He also mentioned the trial was scheduled to last 12 days and that could include Saturdays.

He asked whether anyone had compelling reasons why they couldn’t serve, and more than a dozen lined up. “At $40 a day, I don’t feel very important,” said one male, who explained he was shorthanded at work.

“I can assure you that’s not a good enough reason,” said Conrad—although that juror was not on the final list of eight women and two men, who were named around 3:30pm.

At that point, the judge fed the jurors a snack and told them to decide how long they wanted to be in court each day. They agreed to a 10-hour day starting at 8am through 6pm.

At 4:30pm, the judge’s clerk read for an hour the 9,000-word article in question, “A Rape on Campus.”

The jury also heard Erdely in an interview she did on WNYC radio a few days after the article came out. What was shocking to her, she said on the show: “[Jackie] was brushed off by her friends and the administration.”

She also mentioned the administration’s “level of indifference,” which Eramo contends in her suit was Erdely’s purpose in publishing the article—to portray UVA as indifferent to rape and more interested in protecting its reputation than assisting victims of sexual assault.

First thing October 18, jurors heard a podcast of a November 27, 2014, Slate interview with Erdely, in which host Hanna Rosin calls the gang rape scenario “unbelievably extreme” and asked Erdely whether she contacted the alleged rapists, a question Erdely doesn’t answer.

As Erdely continued to talk in the podcast about how “doing nothing” about sexual assault at UVA “is perfectly fine” and survivors can go “unburden themselves to the dean, Eramo wiped tears from her eyes at the plaintiff’s table.

 

Backstory

September 28, 2012—Jackie goes on alleged date to Phi Kappa Psi, where she claims she’s gang raped.

May 2013—Jackie tells Nicole Eramo she’s been forced to perform oral sex on five men, but isn’t willing to say on whom or where it happened.

November 19, 2014—Rolling Stone publishes “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.”

December 5, 2014—”Our worst nightmare,” Erdely writes in an e-mail. We have to issue a retraction.” Instead, Rolling Stone adds editor’s note saying the magazine’s trust in Jackie was misplaced.

March 23, 2015—Charlottesville Police announce finding no evidence of the gang rape Jackie described.

April 5, 2015—Columbia School of Journalism publishes “What Went Wrong?”, an indictment of the Rolling Stone story.

May 12, 2015—Eramo files suit against Rolling Stone et. al., seeking $7.5 million in damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.

Updated 11:25am October 18 with early morning trial coverage and timeline.

Correction October 21: The date of Jackie’s alleged assault was September 28, 2012.

C-VILLE’s coverage of the trial continues tomorrow. 

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