Johnny Depp v Amber Heard is a defamation case. But it could have a chilling effect on domestic violence survivors

After six weeks, the defamation trial of divorced actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is set to end. 

But its cultural impact is likely to be felt long after the jury returns a verdict.

WARNING: This article contains disturbing content. 

Unlike a previous libel trial in the UK, which Depp lost, the American do-over has been Hollywood-esque, with intimate details of the couple’s troubled relationship broadcast to the world.

Depp fans have spilled out of Virginia’s Fairfax County courthouse daily, often lining the footpath, while others have watched online.

Their support has been amplified on social media, in some cases by bad actors and trolls.

Heard, by comparison, has been the subject of a social media pile-on, despite a British judge finding 12 of her 14 allegations of abuse to be “substantially true”.

A seven-person jury will soon decide if the actor defamed her ex-husband by describing herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse” in a 2018 opinion piece. 

The article, published by The Washington Post, does not mention Depp by name.

He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Regardless of the trial’s outcome, experts fear the public nature of the proceedings — and the intensity of the public discourse surrounding them — could have a chilling effect on survivors of domestic abuse.

‘The myth of the perfect victim’

Depp is suing Heard for $US50 million, arguing his reputation and career were damaged by the Post article.

A close shot shows Johnny Depp in profile, wearing pale-rimmed glasses and an earring shaped like a safety pin
Johnny Depp’s lawyers have described Amber Heard’s allegations of abuse as an “elaborate hoax”.(Reuters: Evelyn Hockstein/Pool)

His lawsuit described his ex-wife’s allegations of physical and emotional abuse as an “elaborate hoax” and stated his intention to “clear his name”.

Heard is countersuing for $US100 million after Depp’s lawyer told media her allegations were false. 

During the trial, Depp also accused her of abuse, claiming she regularly picked fights with him and lashed out physically, once throwing a vodka bottle and severing the tip of his finger.

“I was not allowed to be right, not allowed to have a voice,” he said.

The cause of the injury is disputed but Heard said the actor sexually assaulted her the same night in an alcohol-fuelled rage after accusing her of sleeping with two of her co-stars.

Heard described several violent episodes, often coinciding with Depp’s drinking and drug use, backed up by text messages, recordings, and photos showing bruises on her face and clumps of her pulled-out hair.

“I knew I had to leave him. I knew I wouldn’t survive it if I didn’t,” she said.

Christine Scartz, the director of the family justice clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law, said the trial had bolstered damaging stereotypes of victimhood.

She placed what she called the “myth of the perfect victim” among other lofty gendered standards, such as those tied to motherhood, and said at the core of domestic abuse is a fight for power.

Amber Heard is seen in profile, behind an out-of-focus shadow in the foreground. She is wearing a white blazer and braid crown
Amber Heard has been the subject of a torrent of abuse on social media throughout the trial.(Reuters: Brendan Smialowski/Pool)

“Domestic violence is all about control. So, if the relationship is ending, then the perpetrator is losing that control,” she said.

“In some circumstances, a way to get some of that control back is to initiate or prolong or extend litigation.”

How the trial became a media circus

The trial is being live-streamed for judicial transparency, but its celebrity subjects render it “automatically theatrical”, according to Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. 

“It’s built for close-ups,” he said.

“It’s built for reveals and big moments.”

A courtroom is packed with spectators sitting in groups on wooden benches. Judges' portraits are hung on the walls
Spectators have packed the courtroom throughout the trial, with many Depp fans cheering him on from the pavement as well.(Reuters: Steve Helber/Pool)

Mr Thompson pointed out this puts Depp at an advantage in the court of public opinion.

“Johnny Depp was a name that most people had heard before this trial happened,” he said. 

“To a big portion of the population, this trial comprises 100 per cent of what they know about Amber Heard.”

Heard filed for divorce from Depp in May 2016, then for a temporary restraining order against him four days later.

This latest legal dispute relates solely to defamation, but has again aired a tangle of domestic abuse allegations from both parties.

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