Brett Kavanaugh, Mob Justice and That Rolling Stone Story About Rape at UVA | Opinion

As Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford square off in the court of public opinion, I can't help thinking about that Rolling Stone story back in 2014.

The story was presented as fully researched and factual. This was the headline: "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and a Struggle for Justice at UVA."

Justice, it turns out, had nothing to do with it.

Writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely told the tale of a University of Virginia student whose story was so awful, she was given a pseudonym–Jackie–to protect her identity. Seven men brutally raped her at a fraternity party back in 2012, Jackie said. The story was packed with ugly details about the night.

It's a story, tragically, that could have been true.

The university community, graduates and alumni, quickly chose sides. So did the nation. One camp insisted on not jumping to conclusions—that due process and a real investigation were warranted in such matters, be it a criminal or civil.

The other camp was angry. Students marched on the fraternity, holding signs that read "Rapists." Faculty members led a march against what they called the rape culture at UVa's fraternities.

The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia was the subject of a controversial (and ultimately retracted) story about campus rape. Jay Paul/Getty Images

Those that disagreed with the mob were told they were part of the problem. They were called enablers and worse.

"Why would a woman make up a story like that," the marchers cried when challenged about the possible innocence of the accused.

"Why would she lie?" they argued.

The protestors wanted justice, and fast. But real justice isn't served by speed.

I was caught in the middle.

I was a University of Virginia Law School graduate, and believe in fairness and due process; law and reason. And real-life evidence like collaborating witnesses, eyewitness testimony, DNA and more. After all, it is the accused our Founding Fathers protected in the Bill of Rights, not accusers. There are many profound reasons why.

I was torn because I am married to a woman who was herself the victim of sexual abuse. She never told anyone until she told me, some twenty years after the crime. She never told anyone because her abuser had stature in the community. She, on the other hand, was a teenager with no one to turn to.

She was afraid. Afraid he would deny it. Afraid no one would take her claim seriously.

The fact is, many cases of sexual abuse like my wife's don't get reported.

False rape reports are rare, but happen.

That was the battle in my own mind. My wife broke the tie. She insisted that mob rule wasn't an option. Due process and justice are not mutual opposites. Indeed, you can't have the latter without the former.

I kept thinking about that retraction by Rolling Stone in 2015.

"Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim," the articles editor said in an internal report by Rolling Stone. "We honored too many of her requests in our reporting. We should have been much tougher, and in not doing that, we maybe did a disservice."

Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times was even tougher in his analysis of Sabrina Erdely's reporting.

"She was swept up by the preconceptions that she brought to the article," he wrote. "As much casting director as journalist, she was looking for a single character with an emblematic story that would speak to—in her words—the 'pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture' on college campuses."

University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan described the article as irresponsible journalism that "unjustly damaged the reputations of many innocent individuals and the University of Virginia."

Then there was the fraternity.

"It's completely tarnished our reputation," said Stephen Scipione, the chapter president of Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity Jackie named as the site of her assault. "It's completely destroyed a semester of our lives."

ford doing civic duty kavanaugh assault
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 4 in Washington, D.C. Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

I keep thinking about that Rolling Stone story as Christine Blasey Ford's accusation gets a full hearing on the Senate floor. And the world.

I keep thinking about what the world would look like if any one of us could make a claim against another without evidence of any kind but our personal testimony, an our not-very-specific testimony. And from back in high school, no less.

That is a truly frightening world.

I keep thinking about that Rolling Stone story because Blasey Ford could be telling the truth.

There are people who are sure she's lying. That she's doing this to hurt Kavanaugh.

I keep thinking about all of the girls and women who've experienced sexual assault, and are now more afraid to come forward after watching TV this past week.

This I know: It's simply impossible to know what happened.

That's why courts have rules. And standards of care for evidence. Standards of measurement for innocence and guilt. And statutes of limitations.

Blasey Ford's case could never make it inside any courthouse in America—criminal or civil.

But there it is, for all to see, in the world-wide court of public opinion.

We all want justice. But this is a travesty.