CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — The woman whose harrowing account of being gang raped at the University of Virginia was the centerpiece of a now-discredited Rolling Stone magazine article testified in a deposition heard by the public for the first time on Monday that the story was what she believed “to be true at the time.”
A video deposition of the woman identified in the article only as “Jackie” was played for jurors Monday in the defamation trial against Rolling Stone magazine for the 2014 article “A Rape on Campus” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely. University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo is seeking $7.5 million from the magazine, claiming she was cast as the story’s “chief villain.” A police investigation later found no evidence to back up Jackie’s claims.
“Jackie” said she has trouble remembering details of her assault and the aftermath because she has post-traumatic stress disorder. When asked by an attorney if she stands by the truth of her account, Jackie responded: “I stand by the account I gave to Rolling Stone. I believed it to be true at the time.”
Jackie repeatedly answered “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember” when asked about her meetings with police, discussions with Eramo and specific things she told Rolling Stone. Tom Clare, an attorney for Eramo pressed Jackie to explain why she told Eramo that she was forced to perform oral sex on several men while she told Rolling Stone she was gang raped at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house.
“My comfort level was different and I don’t remember exactly what I told Dean Eramo or Rolling Stone,” Jackie said.
Jackie said she felt pressured to participate in the story and became scared in the weeks leading up its publication when she realized it may be too late to back out.
She said when she initially agreed to talk to Erdely, she was under the impression that the article was going to be about sexual assault advocacy, not her rape. Jackie said she didn’t even realize that her comments during her first conversation with Erdely would be published.
“I was 20 years old and had no idea there was an off-the-record or an on-the-record,” Jackie said. “I was naive.”
Jackie said she remembered “feeling upset” when she found out her story was going to be the central focus and was concerned that Rolling Stone was going to paint Eramo in a negative light. A few weeks before publication, a friend of Jackie’s expressed Jackie’s concerns to Erdely in a text message, but Erdely responded “there’s no pulling the plug at this point – the article is moving forward.”
“I remember feeling scared and overwhelmed and unsure of what to do,” Jackie said. She added: “I felt like I was getting a lot of pressure from a lot of people to do things I didn’t want do.”
Erdely has testified that she would have allowed Jackie to back out of the article if that’s what she wanted and was prepared to use another woman as the central story in the piece if necessary. Erdely said Monday that when she texted Jackie’s friend to say there “no pulling the plug,” she meant the article about the university was moving forward, not that Jackie couldn’t back out if she wanted to.
In the deposition, which was taken in April, Jackie sounded timid and quiet. The monitors in the courtroom were turned around so that only the jury and the attorneys could see the screen. Jackie’s last name has never been released by the court and she will not take the stand as a live witness during the trial.
Eramo and Erdely both took notes as they watched Jackie’s video. Erdely began crying when an attorney read a text message that Jackie had sent her friend before the article was published urging her not to talk to Erdely because the reporter was on a “witch hunt” to interview the man Jackie claimed had attacked her and it was a “disaster.”
In another text message sent after the article was published and read by attorneys on Monday, Jackie said that Erdely “never even fact checked things about that night with me.”
The trial, which began last Monday, is expected to last until about 12 days. Eramo was initially asking for $7.85 million, but recently withdrew her request for $350,000 in punitive damages. Her attorneys have to prove that Erdely and Rolling Stone acted with “actual malice,” meaning that they knew what they were writing about Eramo was false or should have known it wasn’t true.