For the last couple of weeks, we've seen headline after headline dominated by the ongoing (and not to mention incredibly public and nasty) defamation case playing out between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. The trial has been live-streamed, offering us all unparalleled access into the darkest points of their relationship – a stark contrast when compared to the previous UK-based trial that saw Depp lose his case against The Sun newspaper [after they labelled him a "wife beater", something ardent Depp supporters, and the actor himself, are still contesting].
But what damage is all this access to the case causing? Not only to the two people in the centre of the shit-storm, but to the rest of us who consume the daily courtroom footage, the spin-off memes and the think pieces? All of which then go on to form the basis of conversations with friends, family and colleagues. As spectators, it seems our obsession is like no other; we're hungry wolves when it comes to this story, in a way that is rarely witnessed in a world oversaturated with news.
What, on paper, should be a trial setting out to answer a relatively straightforward question – did Amber Heard defame Johnny Depp, derailing his career and finances, when she wrote an op-ed referring to herself as a "a public figure representing domestic abuse"? – has morphed into a furious mud-slinging, month-long soap opera. With the serious issue of abuse often sidelined by tales of drug-taking, defecation and personality disorder diagnosing.
And now, after various audio tapes and photos have been presented from both sides, many are asking if it's possible that both Heard and Depp could be found to have engaged in abuse, in the eyes of the law? And, quite honestly, at this point does it even matter what verdict the jury delivers?
Could Amber Heard also be found to have engaged in abuse?
To quickly get some legal context when it comes to the possible future verdict, LA-based entertainment and criminal defense lawyer, Michael Mandell (@lawbymike), clarifies one possible outcome that fervent Depp supporters (and indeed his team of attorneys) are hoping for – one where Heard is ruled to have been the only one perpetrating abuse.
"A key legal element in defamation lawsuits hinges on whether the statements in question are false. One of the several elements that Depp must prove is that Heard made false statements [in her op-ed]," Mandell explains. "Depp’s lawsuit must focus on the op-ed piece written by Heard, which he claims 'depended on the central premise that Ms. Heard was a domestic abuse victim and that Mr. Depp perpetrated domestic violence against her'.
"If Depp is found to have been abusive and to have committed domestic violence, Heard's op-ed finds protection under the First Amendment. In this scenario, whether or not Heard was also abusive would be irrelevant to the fact that a jury found it true that Depp was abusive."
However, Heard is also counter-suing Depp, claiming that the Pirates of the Caribbean star defamed her when his team accused her of "being a liar and a hoax artist… [and] of the crime of perjury". In Mandell's opinion, this claim may still stand too, even if the jury should rule that they believe Heard to have committed acts of violence.
"The two do not simply 'cancel each out', if the ultimate conclusion is that the once-glamorous duo both engaged in abuse, that would actually likely prove advantageous for Team Heard: strengthening her counterclaim," the legal pro notes. "If we learn Depp's argument that Heard deployed lies and a hoax to generate sympathy was in bad faith, it would not merely serve as a defense against Depp's claim, but Heard's own claim would likely also gain further traction.
"Nevertheless, Heard’s counterclaim can only prevail if she can match the specificity of her contentions. It focuses on specific false statements, including quotes given by Depp to GQ in 2018, asserting there was no truth to Heard's statements of abuse made in court."
How is abuse defined in a Virginian court of law?
A lot of the discussion has been around accusations of physical violence, but Mandell points out that in the eyes of the law "domestic violence may include verbal abuse, coercive control, emotional abuse, and financial control – and that list does not include various other behaviours that would qualify as abuse under the law. No requirement for physical violence exists."
Depp's team, he adds, has largely focused on refuting claims of physical violence, which Mandell believes may prove 'fatal'. "The judge and jury are not adjudicating assault and battery claims; Depp alleges defamation of character, so he must show that Heard made a false statement about him in the op-ed piece. Yet, he has thus far failed to point out the specific statements he believes are false.
"Instead, he seems to be using the courts to illustrate he did not engage in physical abuse. While that may benefit him in the public eye, as a legal argument it will likely prove fruitless."
Mandell also points out that even if Depp convinces a jury that Heard made false statements about him with actual malice, he will still need to prove that those statements actually harmed him or his reputation. "Heard’s legal team, on the other hand, has painted a compelling picture that Depp damaged his reputation and lost out on work [for other reasons not related to Heard], such as his public battle with drugs and alcohol."
But, ultimately, does the verdict of Depp v Heard even matter now?
The hashtag 'AmberHeardDeservesPrison' is currently sitting at over 23,000 tweets, after weeks of 'JusticeForJohnnyDepp' (and its various offshoots) trending. Heard has been subjected to mass ridicule, with her IMDB page even being edited for a short time to show her name as 'Amber Turd'. Anybody who has been following the case, even from a distance, won't have failed to notice the sheer volume of obvious support for Depp and the consistent belittling and tearing down of Heard (although it does seem the tide is perhaps *slightly* starting to turn now, with 'I Stand With Amber Heard' becoming more vocal).
Speaking from a legal perspective, Mandell suggests that Depp and his team may have even entered into the courtroom knowing they were at a disadvantage, but hoping that the trial would still be the perfect opportunity to derail Heard's reputation (or at least boost his own). Essentially, it could all be considered an incredibly bold PR move by Depp – one which, although the verdict is yet to be delivered, has so far proven largely effective.
"Consider this: is Depp more concerned about being able to tell his side of the story to an engaged and large audience than actually winning?" Mandell asks. "Doubtlessly, a scenario exists where Depp loses his case and Heard loses her counterclaim. That would be a win and a loss for both although perhaps, ultimately, Depp can live with being viewed as an unhealthy partner, but not a person who would physically harm a significant other."
Mandell adds that, at the end of all this, the careers of both Heard and Depp will likely be decided by the court of public opinion, more so than any judge or jury. "If Depp can stay clean and insurable, his film career may enjoy a comeback. How the general public feels about Depp and Heard, could ultimately decide who 'wins or loses' in a fight between wealthy celebrities, at least, in the deepest sense."
Regardless of what verdicts are ultimately delivered, we'd do well to all take a step back from the memes, TikToks and general gossipification of the case, and instead ask ourselves what damage has this time had on our society? A quick glance at social media shows us it's only served to strengthen many of the misunderstandings surrounding domestic abuse – from women saying they'd 'treat Johnny right' (showcasing that people think domestic abuse only occurs when the victim has done 'wrong') to others playing into the idea that if Johnny can prove no physical violence has occurred, then it wasn't abuse (domestic abuse can occur without punches and slaps).
There’s also also plenty to dissect when it comes to how gender plays a part in who we choose to believe is a 'worthy' and legitimate victim (and likewise, villain).
Both Team Depp and Team Heard are frantically looking for gems of truth in the rubble of what was clearly a hugely destructive relationship, where neither party was a total angel – and when those gems are scant or blurry, people are reshaping the same audio clips and photos to suit whichever narrative feels best to them personally (much like we're seeing the legal teams do in court). And that narrative is unlikely to waver or be swayed by what the jury end up deciding over the coming weeks.
But, surely, none of us can deny the impact the relentless mockery of Heard may have on victims wanting to come forward in future, or how those with personality disorders could be stigmatised following her live-streamed diagnosis in court. There's plenty to be learned from the trial – not least by Depp and Heard themselves. Let's not lose sight of that in place of meme-ifying the entire thing.
Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline (0808 2000 247), is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and offers free, confidential specialist support. Or visit www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk to fill in a webform and request a safe time to be contacted or to access live chat (live chat available 3pm-10pm, Monday to Friday).
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