The defamation suit brought by Johnny Depp against Amber Heard went to the jury on Friday and the verdict could come any day this week. It has been an ugly affair from beginning to end. While that is expected in a defamation case, several factors enabled Johnny Depp’s legal team to do more than defend him. Abetted by a judge who allowed cameras in the courtroom, Amber Heard was subjected to an old-fashioned smear campaign. Recalling the bad old days before #MeToo, Heard was demeaned in court and slandered online.
The defamation claim is straightforward: Heard wrote a December 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post in which she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” She did not name Depp. But he claims those words are directly responsible for his loss of work.
This is the substance of his $50 million lawsuit (he denies he ever hit or assaulted her; she is countersuing for $100 million). Depp already lost a 2020 defamation case against The Sun, a British tabloid that called him “a wife-beater,” a far more explicit charge. After hearing the evidence, the High Court in London ruled that vast majority of Heard’s claims were “substantially true.”
Why Depp would risk court again is baffling from a legal standpoint. This is a civil case where the burden of proof is “a preponderance of the evidence.” His own texts and documented history of substance abuse and violence tip the balance toward believing Heard. Equally baffling is why the judge in the case, Penney Azcarate, would reject Heard’s motion to dismiss, considering that libel laws in the United Kingdom are strict and carry a reverse burden of proof.
It seems none of this matters to Depp. His intention is to make good on his promise to unleash “total global humiliation” against Heard. His strategy has been to stuff the #MeToo genie back in the he said/she said bottle and to do it old school, by tainting the witness. He has enlisted the court and a willing audience into his vendetta.
His strategy has been to stuff the #MeToo genie back in the he said/she said bottle and to do it old school, by tainting the witness.
The tainting is important. It is a form of degradation meant not simply to dispute the witness’s claims, but to attack her so profoundly that nothing she says is credible. Forget whether she is perfect, likeable or sympathetic. The strategy is to destroy her.
In my book “Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives,” I wrote about how women are shamed when they speak out by associating them with filth, and the dirtier the better. Reputations are smeared, critics sling mud and throw dirt, s*** hits the fan. This explains why it was so effective for Depp to associate Heard with literal feces. That this was mocked in an SNL skit proves it worked in ensuring when you think of the trial, you feel repelled, and you associate your disgust with her.
Abusers routinely turn the tables on victims, recasting them as wrongdoers, even instigators of harm. They are said to be “equally” at fault because they are in relationships with abusers. They are parodied as catalysts of the violence directed at them. When women leave those relationships and come forward with allegations, they are vulnerable to a secondary campaign of victim blaming. Enabled by courts, abusers capture compassion for themselves, especially when they are skilled at playing to an audience, as Depp clearly is.
The tainting is important ... Forget whether she is perfect, likeable or sympathetic. The strategy is to destroy her.
The damage inflicted on Heard by the presence of cameras in the courtroom can’t be understated. Recall there were no cameras in the courtroom during Harvey Weinstein’s trial. The Taylor Swift counter-defamation case was not live streamed. The judge in the Larry Nassar case, Rosemarie Aquilina, allowed cameras during the sentencing phase, only after he had been convicted. But in this trial, every look — every word — from Amber Heard has been memed and mocked across social media via a steady stream of #AmberHeardIsALiar hate. Meanwhile, trolls and bots saturate feeds with reels of Depp playing to the gallery, smirking, cute-waving to the stenographer, eating candy.
Depp’s behavior may backfire against him with the jury, but it seems that’s beside the point. His behavior will put all survivors on notice: saying you are a victim of intimate partner violence would allow any partner with financial means to drag you through a trial as ugly as the one Depp has inflicted on Heard. It would turn “me too” into libel.
Depp’s team has done its best to sell a “both sides” narrative. But there aren’t two sides here. Only one side is running a campaign to make Deep sympathetic and destroy Heard. Only one side is flinging fecal matter with the expectation that it will stick to her and not him. Only one side is trying to turn a #MeToo statement into a he said/she said.
Why do abusers receive the benefit of the doubt? Because we take it away from women. How dare we let them.