Certainty and Doubt at UVA

Police couldn't find any evidence to substantiate allegations in Rolling Stone of a gang rape at a fraternity—but they're suspending the case, not closing it.

Bob Mical/Flickr

A long-awaited report from the Charlottesville Police Department confirms what many felt about Rolling Stone's blockbuster story on a sexual assault at the University of Virginia: It was almost completely unbelievable.

“We’re not able to conclude to any substantive degree that an incident occurred at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house or any other fraternity house, for that matter,” Police Chief Timothy Longo said at a press conference Monday.

Police found no evidence that there was a party at the house on the night that Jackie, a UVA student featured under a pseudonym in the story, said she was sexually assaulted. They found no evidence of an assault at a different house that night. They weren't able to find the man, identified as "Drew" in the Rolling Stone story and "Haven Monahan" elsewhere, or even able to prove that he exists. No one at the fraternity knew of him, and no one at the aquatic center where he supposedly worked with Jackie did either. In short, the entire account of the assault in the story appears to be false.

While the police report provides near-certainty on the journalism, it leaves plenty of questions unanswered elsewhere. Longo said the case is suspended, not closed—while there's not any evidence for police to move forward, they still want to answer some of those questions. “That doesn’t mean something terrible didn’t happen to Jackie," Longo said. "We’re just not able to gather sufficient facts to determine what that is.”

Many of those questions can perhaps only be answered by Jackie—and as Longo made clear, she isn't talking. He said the student first mentioned a 2012 sexual assault to police in April 2014, during a police inquiry into a separate, alleged physical assault. But she didn't want to pursue either case, so police stopped investigating. Police asked to speak with her again in November 2014, after Rolling Stone's story was published, but when she met with them in December, along with a lawyer, she declined to answer any questions.

That means there's a serious asymmetry. Police are able to rule out all sorts of things, but they can't figure out whether there's more to rule in or not. There's also the question of why Jackie decided to speak with reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely but not with police, though she asked to be removed from the story even before it was finished. While Jackie's friends still believe that she experienced some sort of trauma, it's hard to see any way to get at the facts of that unless Jackie speaks or a heretofore-unknown witness steps forward.

Meanwhile—intentionally or not—Longo's report seemed to cast doubt on other claims Jackie made to police. Take the April 2014 assault that led to her first disclosure of the sexual-assault allegation to police. Jackie said she was followed by four men and hit with a bottle; she later declined to press charges. Longo didn't make any claim that the attack didn't happen, but he suggested that her account of being attacked near campus in April 2014 was exaggerated. (She said her roommate had to remove pieces of glass from her cheek; the roommate and a photograph suggested otherwise.) He said police could find no evidence of a phone call she said she'd placed to her mother the same night. He said a police officer was close to the incident and she should have been able to see it.

Further complicating matters is that it's unclear what role Erdely played in the story. Given how unreliable the Rolling Stone article has proven, as demonstrated by the many inconsistencies and errors already found, there's no way to know what exactly Jackie told Erdely. A report from the Columbia Journalism School on the article, expected within the next couple of weeks, should help to clarify the journalistic issues.

Rape advocates emphasize that victims often have difficulty remembering the exact facts of their assaults, and that they deserve some benefit of the doubt. But some advocates have also expressed a great deal of frustration with Jackie and her account, which they worry will distract from the real, acknowledged problems of rape on campus. The problem in this case is that the conflict is not between Jackie's word and anyone else's. The conflict is between an incomplete version of her story filtered through a single unreliable journalist, and a number of hard facts.