Former Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely put in a third day on the stand Friday, a day spent answering friendly questions from the defense in an effort to show how a veteran journalist could be duped by a college girl named Jackie– the centerpiece of a story that became a libel trial.
For over two hours, the jury listened to an interview in which Jackie talks of “daddy issues” that led her to become depressed. College was supposed to provide a fresh start, but barely a month into her freshman year, she was allegedly attacked.
She tells Erdely that she got a tattoo to brand herself a survivor. As Erdely describes it, it’s a women’s symbol with a fist, a rose, and the word “unbreakable.”
Rolling Stone defense lawyer Scott Sexton stops the audio to ask Erdely, “Did it ever occur to you that someone would get a tattoo on their body to commemorate a sexual assault that didn’t happen?”
Erdely’s voice shakes in reply: “Never.”
As the anniversary of her alleged September 28 attack neared, Jackie tells Erdely on the tape, she’d have nightmares in which she pictures herself walking up stairs but telling herself, “Don’t go.”
“I’d sleep during the day and stay up all night because I just couldn’t deal with the dark,” she said.
“I reverted to thoughts of suicide and self harm,” Jackie tells Erdely. “You can run as fast as you can, but you can never get over it. I still have nightmares.”
“She tells it in such a real and emotional way,” Erdely says on the witness stand. “She’s so conscientious with her details I could feel it.”
She wasn’t conscientious about every detail.
The jury hands a note to the judge. They want to know what to make of Jackie’s varying pronunciations of the fraternity where she was allegedly raped. The background noise is distracting, but she seems to call it Chi Phi, Chi Psi, Pi Phi– rarely, if ever, the one actually named in the story: Phi Psi.
Rolling Stone’s lawyer says he’d be happy to stipulate Phi Psi. But Eramo attorney Libby Locke suddenly stands and demands that the jurors trust their own ears.
“It goes to credibility,” says Locke.
Judge Glen Conrad agrees.
The infamous rape school quotation came into the record as Jackie can be heard telling the tale of what Dean Nicole Eramo, the plaintiff, was quoted in the article saying about the UVA’s alleged penchant to bury rape statistics.
In Jackie’s words: “She looked at me very solemnly and said, like, ‘Well, who would want to send their daughter to the rape school?'”
With her chin up and her gaze fixed firmly on Erdely, Eramo lets a hint of a confident smile course across her lips, as this pillar of her lawsuit– that she never actually said it– can be heard coming from the mouth of Jackie.
Later, Jackie can be heard telling Erdely about running into two of her alleged rapists in the beverage section of Walmart while she and a boyfriend were making a night-time search for spinach. Erdely took the tale as more evidence of truth.
“Her level of specificity just reinforced her believability,” Erdely testified. “She didn’t just run into them at Walmart; she ran into them in the juice aisle.”
Jackie’s not on trial here, as the judge and lawyers remind the jurors from time to time, but she seems to relish certain aspects of victimhood. She enthuses about her 12-person UVA course on women & violence, but she reserves her greatest enthusiasm for One Less, a support group for female sexual assault survivors.
“I’m not in a sorority,” she tells Erdely. But in One Less, she says, there are sorority-like get-togethers where women share emotional “highs and lows.”
“All of us are really close,” Jackie tells Erdely. “It’s a little sorority within itself.”
There almost seemed to be a little sorority within Erdely and Jackie. The audio reveals the two talking of post-traumatic stress disorder and swapping tales of psychologists, bio-feedback therapy and migraine headaches– all while as sporting events, music, and the sound of billiard balls clink in the background.
In court, Erdely testifies that Jackie, who speaks at a rapid clip, seemed “outgoing and forthright” as well as “bubbly and enthusiastic.”
How this sister act will play with the jurors who appear to be in their 40s, 50s, and low 60s is unclear; but the college student definitely made an impression on the reporter.
“It was like drinking from a firehose when you were with Jackie,” Erdely testified. “She just talked and talked.”
Jackie seems particularly talkative on the topic of “Becky,” another woman that Jackie claims shared her story of getting raped at the same fraternity.
“She spoke like Spock from Star Trek,” says Jackie, as Becky tells of going into a room with three men.
“They summoned another boy into the room,” continues Jackie, “and I remember she used the word ‘summoned.'”
“What, was she carrying a thesaurus?” jokes Erdely, impressed with the diction and the specificity of the tale.
Jackie notes that “Becky” acts formally, dresses in business casual, and proceeds to say she was an unwilling participant in “forcible sexual intercourse.” And then leaves.
“She looks at her watch and was like, ‘I’ve got to get to class now.'”
Jackie, while admittedly more emotional than Becky– whom the defense lawyer suggests may be fictitious– is never heard in the audio protesting her role as the controversial story’s centerpiece. And, Erdely testified, Jackie never asked the reporter to remove her.
“And after it came out,” said Erdely, “she was thanking me for the article.”