For six weeks, the world has watched the trial of Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard on live TV, with both sides slinging accusations of domestic violence, emotional abuse, and other painfully intimate details about their admittedly toxic relationship.
This trial was supposed to be about the law, but it has devolved into a tawdry reliving of a couple’s dysfunctional relationship via memes.
Depp sued Heard for defamation, alleging $50 million in damages following an opinion piece Heard wrote for the Washington Post in 2018, although she denies that the op-ed was about Depp, and she did not name him in the piece.
Heard’s own defamation counterclaim against Depp, in the amount of $100 million, was also considered by the jury. On Wednesday, the jury found Heard liable for all three claims of defamation and ordered her to pay Depp $15 million in damages. The jury found Depp liable for one claim of defamation, and ordered him to pay Heard $2 million in damages.
The jury’s decision, under Virginia law, had to be unanimous, and the jurors had to attempt to reach a verdict on both of the parties’ claims. (The jury also had the option to reach a decision in partial favor of either Depp or Heard.)
This trial was supposed to be about the law, but it has devolved into a tawdry reliving of a couple’s dysfunctional relationship via memes, TikToks, Instagram, competing hashtags, and heavily curated content.
As Liz Plank earlier pointed out, that is concerning, first of all, on a cultural level. Critics of the trial have been quick to argue that Heard is being unfairly skewered in the public eye. And indeed, the court of public opinion appeared to have already served as judge, jury, and executioner of Heard’s credibility.
But advocates have also been closely watching the trial because of its potential impact on domestic violence accusations more broadly — especially accusations involving high-profile individuals.
Every case is unique in its facts. And defamation cases are especially factually specific. Therefore, it is impossible to predict how the Depp-Heard trial will influence the outcome of other celebrity defamation trials.
And of course, both Depp and Heard are actors, so, there is naturally some built-in skepticism about the retelling of their experiences and past interactions.
Legally, we have to hope that every case is determined on its individual merits. But culturally, facts can be manipulated.
But now the shadow of Marilyn Manson looms large. The rocker, who is also a friend of Depp, has brought a defamation lawsuit against his former girlfriend, actor Evan Rachel Wood. Wood has alleged that Manson raped and abused her during the course of their contentious relationship.
Manson’s lawsuit seeks damages for alleged defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other claims. He is also facing three separate lawsuits brought by other women who allege that they were sexually assaulted, battered, and exploited by Manson, who has not been criminally charged and who denies the allegations.
Legally, we have to hope that every case is determined on its individual merits. But culturally, facts can be manipulated. Witness testimony, as we’ve seen on TikTok, can be subjective. We’ve seen how even the attorneys in the trial, who are simply supposed to be advocates for the parties, can achieve cult-like fan status. But just as in the Depp-Heard trial, the underlying dynamics of the relationship between Manson and Wood will end up being on public display. And there are few domestic violence advocates who would argue this type of attention is good for potential victims. The spectacle of a trial will not dictate the legal outcome of a case. But the gawking and the voyeurism by the court of public opinion can have a chilling effect for vulnerable victims of domestic violence. And it may already have happened.