Johnny Depp’s Amber Heard trial verdict will have a devastating chilling effect

On Wednesday, the defamation trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard concluded after weeks of speculation, sensationalism and salacious headlines. Both sides won, and both sides lost. But Heard lost the most — she is now on the hook for over $10 million in damages owed to a man she says verbally and physically abused her. (Depp was ordered to pay $2 million.)

It was a shattering outcome for women and survivors of domestic violence all across the nation.

It was a shattering outcome for women and survivors of domestic violence all across the nation. As a Black woman, survivor of domestic abuse and writer who has penned work detailing the abuse I myself suffered at the hands of a former partner, I am among those who will be haunted by this verdict and its implications for years to come. 

The jury awarded Depp his millions in damages despite the compelling evidence put forth by Heard’s legal team, including testimony from multiple witnesses, photos of the bruises Heard sustained and text messages and video and audio that captured Depp’s erratic and aggressive behavior. The unanimous verdict meant that jury members declined to substantiate any of her claims.

Given this, the jury’s decision sent a very loud and clear message to survivors like me — that we should never speak up against an abuser, especially not a famous or powerful one. This message feels all the more damaging in the wake of the reversal of numerous gains and protections for women, like the upcoming Supreme Court decision that is expected to reverse Roe v. Wade. Only a few years removed from the beginning of the #MeToo movement, and the idea that women should feel empowered to take a stand against abuse, a jury has now made it clear that, in fact, we could be punished for doing so. (In the context of rising violence against women since the beginning of the pandemic, this message is especially disempowering.)

Indeed, the jury’s failure to find Heard’s multiple, documented allegations of abuse credible points to an ongoing culture that does not believe women, including not only Heard but also her sister, her make-up artist, actress Ellen Barkin, and even the couple’s own therapist, who testified that there was “mutual abuse” in their relationship. Heard, who is rich, white, and a celebrity who was able to hire expensive lawyers to defend her in Depp’s defamation suit, was still failed and villainized in a court of law.

And what does that mean for women who aren’t rich, millionaire celebrities?

Unlike Heard, many victims of abuse cannot afford expensive legal defense teams, should their abusers attempt to punish them for speaking their truth. Defamation is far from the only legal strategy. Abusers can already weaponize the court system against their victims to continue to maintain control and power — a method that is sometimes referred to as “vexatious” or “abusive” litigation, or “post-separation abuse.” It should not be assumed that women can afford to fight back — and this case underscores the fact that even if they do, they will not be guaranteed justice.

I have firsthand experience with the way the courts can be manipulated in this way.

I have firsthand experience with the way the courts can be manipulated in this way. And the financial burden caused by this type of manipulation creates incredibly harmful secondary consequences. Sadly, far too many women are not fortunate enough to have access to financial or legal resources like Heard or myself. I fear far too many women will walk into court against their abuser with no one in their corner. 

Soon, Evan Rachel Wood will be forced to go through the same disgusting circus, as she fights her own defamation lawsuit brought by Marilyn Manson. Let’s hope that trial will not be televised. Manson’s and Depp’s defamation lawsuits feel like a cultural inflection point. Is this the death of #MeToo, or the beginning of a new rallying cry?

Clearly, we must do more to organize in support of women and abuse survivors. Otherwise, movements like #MeToo may very well be bringing vulnerable women to the front lines of a war against them without protections. Though painful, I hope the Depp verdict acts as a catalyst.

Abuse survivors must know that they are not taking a stand alone.