The verdict in Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard is difficult to explain logically.
The confounding part isn’t that the jury sided with him over her; this is the country that elected Donald Trump, where the convicted domestic abuser Chris Brown is still a major pop star, and where a man in Indiana recently won a local Republican primary while in jail awaiting trial on charges of murdering his wife. The explosion of defiant, desperate feminist energy that was #MeToo has now been smothered by an even fiercer reaction. #MeToo was a movement of women telling their stories. Now that Heard has been destroyed for identifying as a survivor, other women will think twice.
What’s baffling is that the jury ruled the way it did even though, in at least one instance, it appeared to believe Heard. In one of the incidents litigated during the trial, a friend of Heard’s named iO Tillett Wright testified that Heard had called him so he could respond to an angry accusation Depp was making about a soiled bed. While on the phone, Wright said he overheard what sounded like Depp violently attacking Heard, and he called 911. Heard would later claim that Depp threw the phone at her, and another friend photographed a bruise on her cheek.
When the police arrived, Heard refused to cooperate with them — she said she wanted to protect Depp — but soon after she got a domestic violence restraining order. Depp’s former lawyer said the police call had been part of “an ambush, a hoax.” The jury ruled that this was defamation, and awarded Heard $2 million for it.
Yet that same jury ruled that Heard had defamed Depp when she described herself, in a Washington Post opinion essay, as a “public figure representing domestic abuse,” and awarded Depp more than $10 million.
As a First Amendment issue, the verdict is a travesty. By the time Heard wrote the essay, the restraining order she’d received had been all over the news, and a photo of her with a bruised face and bloody lip had appeared on the cover of People Magazine. Even if Heard lied about everything during the trial — even if she’d never suffered domestic abuse — she still would have represented it. But if the police call wasn’t part of a hoax, then it’s hard to see how Heard hadn’t suffered as well.
Perhaps this contradictory verdict was a result of jury-room horse-trading; the finding for Heard could have been a sop to convince a few holdouts to get on board with a unanimous decision. But its meaning is clear: It might be impossible to dismiss all the evidence against Depp, but he’s still the more sympathetic figure.
This finding echoes the conventional wisdom of the internet, where Depp is widely viewed as the sensitive prey of a vicious and conniving gold-digger, and of much of the conservative movement, which has cheered Depp, a man who once joked about assassinating Trump, for slaying the #MeToo gorgon. After the verdict was announced, the official Twitter account of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee tweeted out a GIF of Depp as the pirate Jack Sparrow, looking dashing and determined. If there’s one thing they hate more than decadent Hollywood elites, it’s mouthy women.
During the trial, the jurors heard a recording in which Depp sneered at Heard, using an obscenity, “I head butted you in the forehead. That doesn’t break a nose.” (He claimed it was an accident.) They heard from a makeup artist who testified about covering up Heard’s bruises. They heard a text Depp wrote in which he said, using an obscenity, that he hoped Heard’s “rotting corpse was decomposing in the trunk of a Honda Civic,” and another one in which he fantasized about having sex with her burnt corpse. They saw video of him rampaging around their kitchen, smashing cabinets while she tried to calm him down. They heard a recording of him screaming at her for daring to speak to him in an “authoritative” way, and another in which he threatened to cut himself while she begged him to put the knife down.
But they also heard Heard admitting to hitting Depp and taunting him, saying that no one would take his claims of being a domestic violence victim seriously. (She said she only hit him in self-defense.) They heard Depp’s lawyer grilling Heard about notes in which she falls over herself apologizing for “hurting” Depp, though such behavior would hardly be anomalous for someone being abused. They heard Depp’s claim that he’d lost out on a major movie role after Heard’s essay was published. And they put a price on their respective injuries.
The repercussions of this case will reach far beyond Heard. All victims of domestic or sexual abuse must now contend with the possibility that, should they decide to tell their story publicly, they could end up bankrupted by their abusers. Depp’s friend Marilyn Manson is already suing the actress Evan Rachel Wood, one of a number of women who have alleged sadistic abuse at his hands. He won’t be the last.
As the Daily Beast noted, few of the Hollywood figures who spoke up during the height of the #MeToo movement are showing any solidarity with Heard, a stance that would require a modicum of courage given the power of the #MeToo backlash and Depp’s evident popularity. She may well be ruined for good. One of the statements in her Washington Post essay that was deemed defamatory was, “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.” The trial that she lost proved her point.
Heard is no irreplaceable genius like Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old, and she’s no huge moneymaker like Mel Gibson, who pleaded no contest to hitting his former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, whom he was on tape threatening to put in a “rose garden.” According to Heard’s countersuit against Depp, in addition to calling her a “pig,” a “whore,” a “junkie hooker” and numerous other slurs, Depp referred to her as “disposable.” About that, at least, he may turn out to be right.