Although the dust seems to have settled from the Heard v Depp case, the effects of this mishandled defamation trial will be felt by victims of domestic and sexual abuse everywhere – begging the question, why do we still not believe Amber Heard?
On June 1st, the world watched as a Virginia jury found Amber Heard liable for defaming her ex-husband, Johnny Depp. While this was a defamation case, it quickly developed into a harrowing recount of domestic violence.
The trial, despite taking everyone’s social media hostage for its duration, has not been covered with much nuance or sensitivity, a dignity it should’ve been afforded given the gravity of this dispute. Instead, people began taking sides and echoing their support for Johnny Depp on social media, cheering along like excited spectators.
Like many other progressives, I flatly refused to be invested in this trial at the beginning. It felt sadistic to take sides in a domestic abuse dispute from which allegations initially appeared to spring from both sides of the relationship. Hashtags like #AmberHeardIsALiar and #AmberHeardIsAnAbuser have littered social media for years since the first reports of abuse in the relationship surfaced.
When my Facebook and Instagram algorithms inevitably shoved them into my feed, the comments under the posts were ugly. The excess of Men’s Rights Activists jumping down the throats of anyone suggesting Depp also had a role to play in the abusive relationship was enough toxicity for me to steer clear of the whole conversation.
But when the U.S. trial hit its peak on social media about two months ago, the scale and tone surrounding the case became warped. Posts that first only vaguely questioned Heard’s credibility were now misogynistic rants, laced with rape and death threats. The hashtags became #AmberHeardIsAPsycho and #AmberHeardIsASociopath. I fell into the trap of clicking on suggested YouTube videos of the trial with titles like, Amber Heard is a Psychopath – Psychological Expert Reveals Amber Heard’s Lies on the Stand, (the video essentially claimed that Heard was caught lying because she moved one of her eyebrows in a certain way on the stand when talking about being assaulted).
I began to realise that this time, the rhetoric around this case was no longer thinly veiled hate wrapped in right-wing dogma – it was blatant misogyny on display in mainstream media. It was obvious that these posts clung to minuscule discrepancies or irrelevant factors to smear Heard because they didn’t have any real evidence against her; they simply just didn’t like her.
As I too was sucked into #JusticeForJohnny TikTok, I realised the immense scale of misinformation and miscomprehension surrounding domestic violence that circled the case. Almost everyone I spoke to believed Heard was a liar, and that she was the sole abuser in the relationship. Among progressives and feminists the thinking was only slightly different, many seeing the two as being as toxic as each other.
But the more I explored the case, and the more I parsed through the MRAs and Depp Stans, the more I realised how different the standards were for Depp and Heard. And I began to wonder, why, when we usually try so hard to believe women, have we decided not to believe Heard?
Well, by waiting for the trial to unfold and come to a conclusion before weighing in, we have allowed the media space to be filled by MRAs and Depp Stans who hijacked our social media feeds. Unfortunately, the misinformation surrounding this trial has spread so quickly across all ideological spectrums, it is now difficult to contain. Everyone seems to be aware of every misstep and supposed ‘lie’ of Heard’s, but are blind to the incredible amount of evidence against Depp. We have become so entrenched in misinformation it is difficult to change the narrative.
Many seem to forget that this is not the first trial to take place regarding Heard and Depp’s relationship. In late 2020, Depp sued The Sun over an article published in 2018 that labelled him as a ‘wife beater’. The UK is an infamously difficult jurisdiction for publications to secure a win in a defamation trial. However, The Sun was able to prove that Depp was a wife-beater and therefore were within their right to describe him as such. In the judgement, Heard alleged 14 incidents of abuse spanning over a period of years. Of those 14 incidents, one was thrown out on a legal technicality and three were considered ‘he said, she said’ meaning there was no other available evidence other than their testimonies to corroborate either of their version of events.
The remaining ten incidents were substantiated by witnesses, forensic evidence, contemporaneous texts, emails, diary entries, physically visible evidence like bruises on her body, and in one case someone nearby heard Depp assaulting Heard. It is unheard of to have this amount of evidence for domestic violence cases, yet somehow, we were told that this case was murky, complicated, and reciprocal. In reality, when you strip away the skewed media coverage, all the evidence points to a very clear-cut case of a man with power and notoriety abusing his wife.
The Documented Abuse Against Heard
Before dating Depp, Heard was relatively unknown. She secured minor roles in films like Zombieland and Pineapple Express, and in 2008 she landed a role in The Rum Diary alongside Depp. She was 23, he was 46. They were both in relationships at the time, until they separated from their respective partners and began dating in 2011.
At the beginning of their relationship Depp was sober, but as the relationship evolved, he began drinking again. In her testimony, Heard said that when he started drinking again, he would ‘disappear for days… and when he came back, he was different’. Heard says Depp accused her of ‘whoring’ herself out at auditions and questioned why she was wearing revealing clothes. He would suggest to her that all she was were her clothes, and that’s why she got the periphery roles she did. His mood would change drastically when she talked about work, so she actively tried to avoid the topic.
Eventually, verbal torments turned into throwing glasses across a room, flipping tables over, punching a wall inches from Heard’s head, and trashing the apartment in a booze-fueled rage. Each time Depp lost his temper, he would return after a few days and beg Heard for forgiveness, saying he would quit drinking. Then he returned to his sober self, as Heard described – a kind, interesting, funny, generous, and calm man.
The first time Depp hit her was over an innocuous comment. Depp was drunk, and possibly on cocaine when she asked what his tattoo said. Depp replied, ‘Wino Forever’. Heard thought he was joking because to her, it didn’t look like it said that, so she laughed, and then he slapped her across the face. In her testimony, Heard explained that after he slapped her, she hesitantly laughed again because she didn’t understand what was going on.
‘I was thinking that he was going to start laughing too, to tell me that it was a joke, but he didn’t.’ Instead, he yelled, ‘you think you’re funny bitch?’ and then he slapped her again and again and again.
As Heard tried to leave, he fell to his knees crying and grabbed her arms, apologising, saying it would never happen again.
‘I believed it’ Heard said. ‘I believed there was a line that he wouldn’t cross again’.
But sure enough, his drinking, possessiveness, and anger crept back into their relationship. The cycle of domestic abuse continued. Heard described walking on eggshells around him, never knowing what may set him off. Depp would accuse her of cheating because of rumours he heard or photos of her standing too close to a male co-worker. Then Depp would explode. He would throw things at her, scream at her, pull her hair when she tried to walk away, and then he would hit her. One time he sexually assaulted her, which Heard describes here if you can stomach it.
In 2014, Depp and Heard flew from Boston to L.A. on a private plane. Heard was shooting a film with James Franco, an ongoing source of contention in their relationship considering he made a pass at her on a previous film. Heard had already made a conscious effort to shield Depp from the script by telling her assistant to make sure he didn’t see it, as she knew he would blow up at her for the sex scene that was involved.
Depp arrived to their flight at minimum drunk, and possibly on cocaine. According to his texts to Paul Bettany, he acted like ‘an angry, aggro injun in a fuckin blackout, screaming obscenities and insulting any fuck who gets near.’
According to Heard, Depp accused her of cheating, followed her when she changed seats, slapped her, then kicked her down when she got up to move again. He eventually started howling like an animal and passed out in the bathroom.
What Heard describes is consistent with well-documented patterns of domestic abuse. Depp’s behaviour was textbook abuser and Heard was a textbook abuse victim. She tried to fix him, launching desperate attempts to help him stay sober. By 2014, Heard was the only person in his life confronting him with the reality of his anger issues and drug problems. His life was deliberately structured to ensure he would never have to face the consequences of his addictions. His chequebook covered the cost of the trashed hotel rooms, he surrounded himself with yes-people who soothed his self-bruised ego, doctors readily administered medication to get him through film shoots, and his notoriety and celebrity status acted as a safeguard against him ever losing work.
Heard was, as Depp once put it the ‘lesbian camp counsellor’ who ruined all his fun and treated him like the addict and abuser he was. He grew increasingly resentful of Heard. As the trial revealed, his messages to her were apologetic and grateful, but to everyone else they were acerbic and spiteful.
‘I’m out. I’m done,’ he messaged his sister during a period when Heard was giving him the silent treatment.
‘Her actions have added more drama than necessary […] that’s what people call falling off the wagon … It’s happened to a lot of my friends. … Their wives don’t stop calling them.’
Heard continued to try and fix him. She would take photos of Depp passed out in hotel rooms and at nightclubs to use as evidence the next morning to show him that he had a problem. Towards the end of their marriage, learned helplessness kicked in for Heard.
‘I would try to stand up for myself,’ she said. ‘I would push back, I would push him off of me … I would yell at him and scream at him, I would call him ugly names.’
Depp began disappearing for even longer periods, returning with more paranoid accusations and violent outbursts toward her. Heard became increasingly brittle and numb to Depp’s anger and reliance on drugs and alcohol. She refused to accept his empty promises of sobriety and became resentful of his denials of addiction.
When Depp disappeared for over a week, only to return drunk at Heard’s 30th birthday party, the marriage collapsed. Afterwards, he blew up, throwing his phone at her, striking her cheek. The next day, Heard filed for divorce and the following week, she took out a restraining order against him.
In 2018, Heard wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post, in which she said, ‘I became a public figure representing domestic abuse’. Over this, Depp sued Heard for defamation.
While people could put two and two together to realise Heard was likely talking about Depp, she didn’t mention him by name and he was not a focus of the article. Heard’s restraining order against Depp was already public knowledge in 2016, and the idea that Heard defamed Depp in any real way is rejected by most legal experts.
Despite being a defamation trial, Depp’s legal strategy from the beginning was to use the public forum to smear Heard and fuel the conspiracy theory that she had been concocting a hoax for years to destroy his career. In his legal filings for the Virginia case, Depp said that Heard’s allegations are ‘an elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity for Ms Heard and advance her career.’
At the most basic level, this doesn’t make sense. When has publicly speaking out against a powerful, older man over abuse ever helped elevate a woman’s career? In fact, the exact opposite tends to happen, and it should be noted that Heard recently filed for bankruptcy.
Depp’s legal strategy also doesn’t hold up when you consider the amount of people who testified in the case. His defence implied that Heard had planned to destroy Depp’s career by convincing multiple friends, ex-friends, family, employees, neighbours, and professional contacts to lie numerous times under oath, all while leaving no trace of this nefarious communication in the form of emails or texts.
The claim that Heard is a gold-digger and solely after Depp’s money is not only deplorable but baseless. Despite whether there was abuse or not, Heard was entitled to millions in the divorce. She didn’t have to claim any abuse to receive that because there was no pre-nuptial agreement. Instead, Heard dropped her claim for ongoing support and ended up taking significantly less than she was entitled to. Part of the settlement required her to withdraw the abuse allegations, sign an NDA and co-sign a vague, anodyne statement that the relationship had been ‘volatile’ but ‘there was never an intent of physical or emotional harm’.
It seems unfathomable – and rather idiotic – for Heard to have spent years (before #MeToo even began) fabricating texts and photographs only to get a modest divorce settlement that she was already entitled to and then stay silent for years, only making oblique references to her relationship as part of her domestic violence advocacy work.
But Depp’s team asserted that Heard lied about donating her $7 million divorce settlement to charity. Heard announced that she would donate half the sum to the ACLU, and half to Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, but it was revealed during the trial that neither place had received the full donation. A small amount of digging, however, shows that while she has not yet donated the full amount, Heard entered into an agreement with the ACLU in 2016 to donate the full $3.5 million over 10 years. After the initial contribution, subsequent payments have been delayed pending her civil trials with Depp. Heard says she has so far spent $6 million on her legal defence.
It is not uncommon for large charitable donations to be spread out over longer periods, and representatives from the ACLU testified that Heard was transparent with them about her financial circumstances and remains committed to completing her payments. The ‘proven lie’ here amounts to an imprecise choice of words: she said ‘I donated’ when she should have said ‘I pledged.’
Of course, she could have been more accurate, but a minor misstatement, or at worst a slight exaggeration of her generosity, hardly amounts to evidence that she was capable of the kind of bank-heist calculation necessary to fake abuse claims for years.
The Aftermath for #MeToo
I was baffled by how this case has deviated from consistent progressive discourse regarding domestic abuse matters. We have sprung to the defence of many women in the past, so why not for Heard?
The right are desperate for a case that proves that #MeToo has gone too far. They have been clamouring to substantiate this conspiracy theory for years, and to an extent, they succeeded. The difference with this case is that centrists, centre-right, and even left-aligning people are not seeking out the evidence and are therefore believing the information they come across on social media. Amber Heard is one of America’s most hated figures, she will likely never be cast in another major Hollywood film, and she has now filed for bankruptcy. Heard is ruined, while Depp is in preproduction for his next role.
One of Heard’s attorneys, Benjamin Rottenborn, detailed in his closing statement how the jury appears to give more weight to the innocuous behaviour of the abuse victim rather than the tangible proof of abuse itself. He emphasised through a series of Catch-22s how it wouldn’t have mattered how Heard behaved on the stand.
‘If you didn’t take pictures, it didn’t happen; if you did take pictures, they’re fake,’ he said.
‘If you didn’t tell your friends, you’re lying, and if you did tell your friends, they’re part of the hoax. If you didn’t seek medical treatment, you weren’t injured; if you did seek medical treatment, you’re crazy.’
He didn’t refer to some other common tactics used against abuse victims deployed by Depp’s team: if you surreptitiously record abusive behaviour, you are conniving and untrustworthy; if you don’t, it didn’t happen. If you ever try to laugh off your partner’s ghastly behaviour then it’s not abuse. If you talk back or fight back, then you are the real abuser.
This case has set the progressive movement to believe women back years. We already had so much further to go, but now other alleged abusers are already copying Depp’s legal strategy, and succeeding.