Jurors awarded a University of Virginia administrator $3 million Monday in connection with the now-discredited Rolling Stone magazine story that claimed the school botched the handling of a purported brutal gang rape a fraternity house.
The administrator had taken the witness stand in a Charlottesville courtroom earlier Monday to describe how her life was nearly ruined by the publication of A Rape on Campus.
A 10-person jury, after 20 hours of deliberation, on Friday found reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the magazine and publisher Wenner Media defamed Nicole Eramo with malice. The jury reconvened Monday to determine how much money to award Eramo, who sought $7.5 million.
Eramo was the associate dean of students who counseled "Jackie," a student whose tale of sexual brutality set off a nationwide firestorm when the article was published online in November 2014. It detailed Jackie's claim that she was at a fraternity party on Sept. 28, 2012, when she was lured upstairs, raped and beaten by several men over a three-hour period.
Eramo, who was in charge of the university's sexual assault program, claimed Erdely portrayed her as the "chief villain" who discouraged victims from reporting assaults to police.
On Monday, Eramo told the jury she contemplated suicide after the story was published, WVIR-TV in Charlottesville reports.
"It was like reading about somebody who had my name and my face, but I didn't recognize me," Eramo testified. "I just wanted to disappear."
The fraternity also was stunned by Jackie's assertions and immediately challenged the article, which drew intense media scrutiny. Erdeley, within days of publication, sent her editors an email with the subject line "Our worst nightmare." She said the magazine needed to run a retraction.
The magazine added an editor's note more than two weeks after publication citing some problems with Jackie's tale but did not remove the story from its website until April 2015.
A police investigation found no evidence to back up Jackie’s claims. The magazine commissioned the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to determine what went wrong. The school's 13,000-word report said the magazine made a series of journalistic errors, including relying too heavily on Jackie's uncorroborated story. The report also said the magazine, not Jackie, was to blame for the botched piece.
Rolling Stone, after Friday's verdict, issued a statement admitting journalistic "missteps" and apologizing "to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo."
"It is our deep hope that our failings do not deflect from the pervasive issues discussed in the piece, and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students," the statement said.
In closing arguments Friday, Tom Clare, Eramo's attorney, said Erdely and her editors decided on a narrative casting Eramo as a villain, and then "it didn’t matter what the facts were."
Rolling Stone’s attorneys said there was no evidence the reporter knew that what she wrote about Eramo was false. Lawyer Scott Sexton noted that Eramo also believed Jackie's rape story.
“This young woman was very good at telling a story,” Sexton said. “We are the ones being tried, in a sense, for having believed her.”