Amber Heard became the victim of internet attacks during the defamation court battle opened by her ex-husband Johnny Depp, which also involved allegations of domestic violence. Could the case negatively affect abuse victims who decide to report a similar situation?
Last Wednesday, a Virginia court found that Heard defamed Depp in a 2018 Washington Post article in which she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse,” without naming her name. ex husband.
The jury made up of five men and two women decided that the actress should pay compensation of US$ 15 million (R$ 72 million), an amount that was reduced to US$ 10.35 million (R$ 49.4 million) in Virginia legal boundaries reason.
As for Heard’s charges against Depp, also for defamation, the jury sentenced the actor, who was not at the hearing, to pay damages of $2 million (R$ 9.5 million) for defaming her through his lawyer, Adam Waldman.
The verdict surprised legal experts, especially as it follows Depp’s defeat in a similar case in the UK nearly two years ago.
For Heard, the decision was an almost total rejection of his testimony.
Depp, 58, has staunchly denied allegations of emotional, physical and sexual abuse that Heard says took place on multiple occasions over the course of their five-year relationship.
Comments on social networks
The jury sided with Depp and found Heard’s claims to be false.
In a statement, the 36-year-old actress said she was “heartbroken” by the decision. Her team said she will appeal.
But in the court of public opinion, it looked like Heard had already lost even before the final result.
During the six weeks of the trial, long before the jury had given its verdict, a sort of consensus had settled on the internet that Heard was lying.
Her testimony has been widely derided, hashtags calling her a sociopath have been trending on Twitter, and a petition to remove her from the upcoming movie sequel “Aquaman” has, as of Friday, June 3, received over 4.4 million signatures. .
On TikTok, couples staged some of the scenes of violence that Heard denounced in the deposition, in an apparent effort to prove they were made up.
“I think we need to be very clear about this: this trial generated a lot of harassment against Amber Heard,” says Nicole Bedera, a sociologist specializing in sexual violence. “It was shocking.”
Domestic violence experts like Bedera fear that the deeply negative response to Heard will have repercussions far beyond the trial.
Impact for future victims
Many warn that Heard’s online abuse will have a devastating effect on the lives of survivors of domestic violence and may discourage some from reporting their cases.
“There are many survivors who will see their story reflected in this trial. And they will also be harmed by this case,” Bedera said.
“I think many victims now will feel more insecure at the thought of telling their story in the future,” he said.
Domestic violence cases tend to be resolved without reporting. In the United States, only two out of five cases are reported to the police, according to the latest US Justice Department survey.
The same proportion of women, around 40%, reported violence in the relationship.
“I think it’s clear that survivors are making rational decisions when they choose not to report their case,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a civil rights attorney and author of “Sexual Justice.”
“A cost-benefit analysis is carried out and, many times, this calculation shows that it is better not to inform”, according to the expert.
When it comes to weighing the scales, the fear of a painful investigation and trial — and the fear that no one believes them — weighs heavily.
Both fears were demonstrated in the response Heard received, said Kelly Sundberg, a professor at Ashland University and author of “Goodbye Sweet Girl,” a memoir about her experience in an abusive relationship.
“There’s a reason most people keep their abuse private,” he said.
“Even if she [Heard] had won, that would have a chilling effect on victims, because no one wants to be discredited like she was,” Sundberg said.
“If I had received that kind of response before writing my book, I don’t think I would have felt safe publishing it,” she said.
“It was horrible,” added Nicole Bedera. “People called her a psychopath, a liar, said she was crazy, that she was manipulative, said she deserved what happened.”
In the final week of the trial, Heard, a single mother of a one-year-old daughter, spoke out about the harassment during the trial, saying she received “hundreds of death threats regularly, if not daily.”
“People want to kill me, they tell me every day. People want to put my baby in the microwave and they tell me so,” she said. “It’s been agony.”
During the trial, the court heard recordings of Heard in which she appeared to bully her ex-partner and mock him. In a video, the actress admits to having “beat” Depp before asking him not to be a “baby”.
“Tell the world, Johnny,” she demands of him in other images, shot in 2016. “Tell them, ‘I, Johnny Depp, a man, am also a victim of domestic violence’.”
These recordings were often used as proof on social media that Heard was lying and that she was the “real” abuser in their relationship.
But that same scrutiny didn’t seem to apply to Depp.
The court heard several witnesses — including one of his ex-girlfriends, actress Ellen Barkin — describe the actor’s alleged drug and alcohol abuse and violent tendencies.
In recorded audio, the jury heard Depp yelling insults and obscenities at Heard and saw messages saying he wished his ex-wife dead.
“There was a double standard for sure,” said Nicole Bedera.
“Johnny Depp also said some really horrible things. Text messages about the idea of raping and murdering Amber Heard come to mind,” said the expert. “A lot of people were quick to say ‘it was just a joke’ at the time.”
Experts also fear that the legal path taken by Depp, opening a defamation suit, could be used by abusers.
“One thing the coverage was really lacking is that Heard didn’t sue Depp for abuse,” said attorney Alexandra Brodsky. “It was Depp who sued Heard for saying she was harassed, and not even by him.”
Brodsky described a growing “horde” of lawyers and public relations consultants advising young people on how to clear their names after being accused of sexual assault in college.
“A lot of these are libel suits, or at least threats of libel suits. We’ve seen this strategy spread,” he confirmed.
In this case, after six weeks of depositions, the jury unanimously ruled that Heard had defamed Depp in the paper. “The jury gave me my life back,” the actor said in a statement after the verdict.
But seeking defamation damages becomes “alarming” when perpetrators use it as a public relations strategy, Brodsky said.
“The truth is, no matter what happened at the end of the trial, Depp would have become, at least for some people, the hero,” she said. “I’m really concerned about the ‘copycat’ effect.”
At the same time, these cases act as a deterrent for victims in general, she said.
“Someone sees their friend, classmate or celebrity facing a defamation suit and says, ‘I don’t want to deal with this.’