The Amber Heard verdict could have devastating consequences for survivors of abuse
Good morning, Broadsheet readers! New reporting adds context to Sheryl Sandberg’s Meta exit, the Platinum Jubilee continues, and the Amber Heard verdict will have real consequences for survivors. Have a restful weekend.
– Real consequences. On Wednesday, a jury delivered a shocking verdict: with her 2018 op-ed “I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change,” Amber Heard defamed her former husband Johnny Depp.
Depp sued Heard for defamation in 2019, alleging that his reputation and earnings suffered after she described herself in the op-ed as a “public figure representing domestic abuse” without naming him. The pair, with a 22-year age gap between them, married in 2015 and ended their relationship in 2016. Evidence of alleged abuse throughout the course of their marriage presented during the trial included photos of bruises and text messages in which Depp fantasized about murdering Heard and wrote he would “f*** her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.” In a statement following the verdict, Depp called the allegations “false, very serious, and criminal.”
Over the course of the trial, a partially right wing-funded media machine on TikTok, YouTube, and Facebook attempted to paint Heard as a liar and unreliable. The jury—which was not sequestered and was therefore potentially exposed to that media influence either directly or through friends and family—delivered a judgment against Heard this week, while also deciding that Depp, through his lawyers, had defamed Heard in return. Heard owed Depp $15 million in damages, while Depp owed her $2 million. (The judge cut down Heard’s owed sum to $10.35 million to comply with the law in Virginia, where the case was tried.) A court in the U.K. came to an opposite conclusion in 2020 when Depp sued a tabloid for calling him a “wife beater;” that case was decided against Depp by a judge rather than a jury. Depp’s attorney called that decision “perverse” at the time.
While the most recent trial was supposed to focus on the narrower question of defamation, it ended up re-litigating their relationship in the court of public opinion. Followers of the trial and, it seems, jurors, doubted Heard as a victim, although the jury didn’t directly deliver a verdict on whether the allegations of abuse were true. Opponents of Heard emphasized flaws in her character and alleged violent behavior of her own. To the meme-makers and Depp’s legion of fans, Heard wasn’t a believable survivor— but that’s because a “perfect victim” doesn’t exist. (Nor does the concept of “mutual abuse;” ultimately, one partner has more power, experts say.) “There was a bias against her because in our nation, we believe that victims are docile, we believe that victims don’t have a choice,” Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said in an interview. “It’s far more complicated. And … she didn’t fit the narrative and the stereotype that we have in our minds.”
The most important questions at the center of this case shouldn’t be how much you like Johnny Depp or even whether you believe Amber Heard. The real consequences reach far beyond either celebrity. Depp’s victory has set the precedent that if a survivor of abuse comes forward with their experience without even naming their alleged abuser, their more powerful alleged abuser can wield their influence, money, and resources to punish the accuser. “It furthers the notion that victims are not to be believed,” says Glenn of the verdict. “It furthers the notion that you have to be careful coming forward, whether it’s in written word or not. And it further says there’s a possibility you will endure society’s wrath, whatever that might look like. For coming forward, you may endure mockery, you may endure a malicious response. There’s still a possibility in 2022 that you will not be believed.”
This fall will mark the fifth anniversary of #MeToo. Some of #MeToo’s achievements are holding up; a court, for example, upheld Harvey Weinstein’s rape and sexual assault conviction yesterday. But when the situation gets murkier, is our commitment to believe women wavering? Is a backlash brewing?
After the verdict came in, Heard said as much. The verdict is “a setback” “for other women,” Heard wrote in a statement. More than a setback, it’s a form of silencing. Not just for Heard, but for all survivors.
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