The Amber Heard/Johnny Depp Verdict Is in and the Winner Is… Nobody
The Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard defamation trial has finally ended in a somewhat split verdict. While Depp won the larger settlement of $15 million in damages and Heard won $2 million in damages from her countersuit, the real winner in this farce of a trial is… nobody.
I suppose the level of notoriety of the two celebrities involved in this case should have prepared us all for some degree of hysteria, but what actually occurred was disturbing on a number of levels.
First and foremost in the way in which social media latched onto the extreme nature of the volatile relationship that Depp and Heard shared. Users across all platforms acted as judge, jury, and executioner by vilifying Heard at every turn, mocking her purported mental health conditions, poking holes in her testimony, and utilizing her sometimes erratic behavior to prove that she was not only lying but deserved to be figuratively crucified by the court of public opinion. All of this despite ample evidence that the dysfunctional relationship between Depp and Heard clearly involved abusive toxic behavior by both of them and frankly, none of us were in the room where it happened. It was appalling and represents an extremely dangerous precedent for the way future cases of domestic, physical, emotional, or sexual violence may be handled moving forward.
Second, victims of abuse already face extreme adversity in coming forward with their allegations. Very few cases ever make it to trial due to the way our judicial system is set up. When allegations have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, unless there was physical evidence that was obtained by a medical examiner or a police officer who may have been called to the scene of a domestic disturbance call, cases like this become a matter of he said vs. she said. Providing compelling testimony that would be enough for a conviction is excruciatingly difficult and can be extremely retraumatizing for the victim of abuse. Many cases end up being settled out of court because of this burden of proof and because of the inability of a victim to endure the repeated harsh questioning necessary to obtain a conviction.
Third, many victims of violence are from marginalized communities, such as women of color and transgender individuals, and they often lack the financial means to pursue charges. Having the ability to afford effective legal representation is a luxury reserved for the few. And sadly, court-appointed representation isn’t always qualified to successfully prosecute cases involving domestic, physical, emotional, and/or sexual violence. This immediately places victims at a disadvantage before they even see the inside of a courtroom.
Additionally, unless you have experienced the trauma of domestic, physical, emotional, or sexual violence personally, you cannot comprehend the degree to which being violated like this can traumatize a person and leave long-lasting effects. People were quick to jump on bandwagons saying that Amber Heard’s purported borderline personality disorder diagnosis and other mental health conditions made her inherently volatile, untrustworthy, and otherwise clearly capable of manipulating Depp, the testimony, and the jury. Her supposed psychological conditions don’t make her inherently abusive. In my opinion, Depp was clearly dealing with his own demons and acted violently toward her. His status as the male in the relationship creates an unequal power dynamic that inherently comes with its own set of issues. Again, since none of us were witnesses to their day-to-day interactions, we cannot comprehend the degree to which Heard was thrust to the limits of her mental stability by their violent encounters. Her trauma might well have pushed her over the edge, so to speak, but that’s not for any of us to litigate.
And finally, I’m concerned about the chilling effect this entire case could have on any gains victims have made since the advent of the #MeToo movement when they come forward with allegations of assault or abuse. The popularity, talent, or likability of a person, celebrity or otherwise, doesn’t make them incapable of doing terrible things, nor does it absolve them of crimes. Prior to #MeToo, victims were routinely disbelieved and vilified if they spoke out against a beloved individual. It felt like the tide was starting to shift when it came to holding abusers accountable regardless of their social or financial status. If the act of coming forward with your story of assault can be not only rejected but weaponized against you by complete strangers on social media platforms, making your life hell, why would anyone take that chance? Cases like Dylan Farrow vs. Woody Allen come to mind. To this day he maintains his innocence even though she has never changed her story. It wasn’t until recently that her allegations started finally getting the attention they deserved and that supporters of Allen began to reconsider their unwavering devotion to him. It’s like one step forward, two steps backward.
Ultimately we won’t know what the long-term implications of this case will be until the next high-profile case comes along, but I don’t believe we can overstate the degree to which the entire fiasco represented a fundamentally disastrous exhibition of the worst in all of us. Whether you were Team Depp or Team Heard, we all lost today by caving to our base instincts for magnifying sensationalism over the very real tragedy that was being played out in that courtroom. We all need to do some soul searching and recognize the importance of treating cases like this with at least a modicum of solemnity.
Getty image by Andrey Popov.