It was a courtroom with tears shed on both sides of the aisle.
The defamation trial pitting former University of Virginia dean Nicole Eramo against her portrayal by Rolling Stone magazine’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely got into full swing Tuesday with both women crying at the federal courthouse. There was even talk of past tears, such as when Eramo, the only person whose image ran with the story, was depicted with a demonic smile and hollow eyes while protesters mass outside her office.
“I started to cry when I saw the picture,” Eramo testified. “They made me look like the devil.”
According to the plaintiff, her negative portrayal didn’t end with that digitally-manipulated image. Rolling Stone suggested that Eramo steered victims away from police reports, downplayed sexual violence statistics and called UVA “the rape school,” allegations she categorically denied from the witness stand.
“They made me into something they wanted me to be for their own narrative,” she said.
Eramo conceded that she canceled a planned interview at the behest of UVA’s communications office, but said she would have answered a fact-checker’s questions—if only she’d been called.
“I would have checked with communications, and if allowed to answer I would have done so,” Eramo said.
Some of Eramo’s most emotional testimony concerned November 19, 2014, the day that “A Rape on Campus” screamed across the Internet, telling a tale—eventually debunked—of a gang rape in a fraternity house.
“I read it on my phone about five o’clock in the morning,” Eramo testified. “I was stunned.”
She described the opening sequence of a seven-against-one gang rape as horrific, but horror gave way to puzzlement as Jackie, she said, had previously portrayed to Eramo a different rape scenario.
“I was shocked,” Eramo said. “I was very confused why she hadn’t shared such a horrific incident and let me help her.”
Eramo began to realize her own depiction didn’t end as a devil in imagery, but also in deed. “I was accused of manipulating a student after gaining her trust, which is so far from what I had tried to do,” she said.
By the time she got to the office in Peabody Hall, she realized the story was already having an impact, and she wondered if her boss, Allen Groves, had read it.
“When I walked in, the office was deadly quiet, which was strange,” Eramo said. “Allen asked me if I was okay.”
She says she was asked to come to a 3pm meeting and bring all her case files—so other administrators could follow up on them.
“I felt alone and scared,” she testified. “I thought I was going to get fired.”
Eramo wasn’t the only one harmed by the story. Defense attorney Scott Sexton noted in his opening statement that reporter Erdely regrets the “life-changing mistake” of putting her trust in Jackie and hasn’t published a story since this one.
“Yes, we regret using Jackie as the lede more than you can ever know,” said Sexton. “It was a disservice to all women who truly were sexually assaulted.”
“Today, we heard opening statements and from Dean Eramo herself,” said Rolling Stone in a statement. “Throughout Eramo’s testimony, it was abundantly clear that she believed in the credibility of Jackie, whom she counseled for many months.”