Rolling Stone Writer Testifies in Defamation Trial Over 'A Rape on Campus' Story

PHOTO: The University of Virginia campus is seen on December 6, 2014 in Charlottesville, Virginia. PlayJay Paul/Getty Images
WATCH Former Dean Sues Rolling Stone for $8 Million Over Alleged Rape at UVA

Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the reporter behind the now-retracted Rolling Stone article "A Rape on Campus," defended her integrity as a journalist on the stand today as she and the magazine face a nearly $8 million defamation lawsuit.

The defamation suit was filed by Nicole Eramo, the former associate dean of students at the University of Virginia, who is suing Erdely and Rolling Stone over her portrayal in the article.

In the article, a University of Virginia student identified only as "Jackie" described a brutal gang rape at a fraternity party in 2012. "Jackie" was described as facing callous indifference from college authorities, including Eramo.

Rolling Stone ultimately retracted the 2014 story after other media outlets pointed out troubling issues with the story. A police investigation into Jackie's allegations of being raped by seven men failed to uncover any sort of evidence of the alleged assault ever taking place.

Eramo's attorneys are trying to paint Erdely as a reporter with a motive -- one who has a history of framing stories of sexual assault to fit a specific "vision," and they say that she was seeking to intentionally highlight institutions that demonstrate indifference toward victims of sexual assault.

Erdely was questioned today about several articles she had previously written about sexual assault survivors over a span of several years before the retracted Rolling Stone story, including cases involving the Catholic Church and the rape of Petty Officer Rebecca Blumer.

Lawyers for Eramo produced the original story proposal that Erdely sent to Rolling Stone editors in 2014 when she first decided to write a story about rape on college campuses.

"I envision the article" and the "article I have in mind" were some of the phrases Eramo's lawyers pointed at to try and show Erdely's alleged bias in reporting. In her email to her editors, Erdely said she wanted to showcase the "anything-goes party atmosphere" on college campuses where "administrations have been criticized for turning a blind eye" and to show how "institutional indifference towards such complaints has created a hostile environment for women." She also wanted to show the "various ways colleges have resisted involvement," and that colleges "juke their stats" to make campuses appear safer.

Eramo's lawyers say she pitched the story to Rolling Stone editors before she met "Jackie."

"I was open to wherever the reporting was going to lead me," Erdely said on the stand, adding that she was transparent with her sources about where Jackie's story was taking her, and that the story "was very in flux."

"My article was not about institutional indifference," Erdely said just before court was recessed for the day. She will continue to give testimony on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, lawyers for Rolling Stone attempted to pick apart Eramo's defamation case against the magazine by emphasizing portions of the article that portrayed Eramo in a good light and not demonized, as her suit alleges.

In her suit, Eramo says the article painted her as the villain, and that she "intentionally tried to coddle Jackie to persuade her not to report her rape; that she was indifferent to Jackie's allegations; that she discouraged Jackie from sharing her story with others; that she 'abuse[d]' Jackie; that she did 'nothing' in response to Jackie's allegations; that she claimed that UVA withholds rape statistics 'because nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school'; that she did not report Jackie's alleged assault to the police; that she 'brushed off' Jackie; and that she actively sought to 'suppress' Jackie's supposed gang rape. ...These statements, and the portrayal of Dean Eramo, in 'A Rape on Campus' and in Erdely and Rolling Stone's subsequent public statements, are categorically false."

'It was Jackie's decision'

Eramo, who sat alert in pink horn-rimmed eyeglasses on her second day on the stand, repeated that she did investigate Jackie's rape claims as best she could but said that she never wanted to pressure Jackie into doing something she didn't want to do.

"It was Jackie's decision whether or not she wanted to speak about her rape," Eramo said.

Eramo said she reached out to the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity where Jackie alleged her rape occurred but that "no one came forward" and the brothers in the house were "unable to validate the allegation from the chapter's side."

Rolling Stone's lawyers produced text messages Eramo exchanged with her colleagues regarding Jackie's case, including with two students who worked as sexual assault advocates on UVA's campus. In one text exchange, Eramo said, "I should have conducted an investigation due to the public safety risk, despite the wishes of the survivor [Jackie]."

Jackie, Eramo said, did not want to report her alleged rape to the authorities, or even file a complaint with the university.

Eramo defended her actions repeatedly throughout her testimony, saying, "This was the attempt at doing an investigation."

"We were taking steps to get the police involved, we were taking the best steps we could with someone who did not want to cooperate with the investigation," she said.

The jury also heard portions of an interview she had conducted with WUVA, a student-run radio station in Charlottesville, just two months before Rolling Stone published its article. In it, the interviewer is repeatedly heard asking Eramo about the school's policy in dealing with students who are accused of sexual assault.

At one point, the interviewer asks, "Why is it that a student who is accused of cheating or lying is expelled, but someone found guilty of committing sexual assault is given a more lenient sentence of a one or two year school suspension?"

"We are trying to balance the rights of the individual being accused with the rights of the complainant," Eramo answers. "And if a person admits they have sexually assaulted someone, it shows a 'willingness to improve' and that rehabilitation is possible."

During Eramo's time at UVA, no one has been expelled for sexual misconduct.

"The fact remains that under Dean Eramo's tenure as chair of the Sexual Misconduct Board, no one was expelled for sexual assault, while over 100 students were forced to leave UVA for honor code violations," Rolling Stone said in a statement provided to ABC News.

Rolling Stone's lawyers also asked Eramo her salary -- $110,000 -- and highlighted that despite the negative criticism Eramo may have received, she is still employed with UVA and has since received a raise.

'I'm so sorry for the ways that I have complicated your life'

Also on the stand today was Emily Renda -- the UVA alum who initially brought Jackie's story to Rolling Stone's attention after Erdely reached out to her and asked for sexual assault survivors who would be willing to share their experiences. Renda, a sexual assault survivor and student advocate, recommended five women to Erdely, including Jackie.

Renda, whose testimony was heard via a video deposition she gave in March of this year, only had good things to say for her mentor, Eramo. She called her a fighter and a role model.

Though Renda did acknowledge the discrepancies in Jackie's story, she said she never asked Jackie for details of her alleged rape. She said she was also concerned about Erdely’s initial pitch about the story, saying she took issue with the way Erdely described the "rape culture" that is so prevalent on college campuses.

She started sobbing during her testimony while reading a letter she had written to Eramo after the article was published. "I'm so sorry for the ways that I have complicated your life," Renda read from the letter.

She testified of Eramo, "I know that she cried all day on Nov. 19. She hid in her office, she felt very sick, she was very sick, she was very upset."

Renda added that she perceived Eramo's primary concern was to make sure Jackie was OK, and that she was more concerned about Jackie's well-being than anyone else's, including her own.

Lawyers for Rolling Stone have argued that Eramo's attorneys must prove that Erdely and the magazine's editors acted with "actual malice.”