As Johnny Depp’s defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard continues into its fifth week, experts say the public reaction to Heard’s testimony sends a sobering reminder that despite the “MeToo” movement, the credibility of alleged abuse victims could be shaky.
Alyssa Bach, an associate attorney at Shulman & Partners LLP in Toronto, explained in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca Tuesday that the libel trial highlights the power imbalance in abusive relationships.
Characteristics of power imbalances include financial disparities, a significant age difference, signs of manipulation and violent behavior, and changes in mood — all factors reported in Depp and Heard’s marriage, according to the trial.
Bach said people in alleged abusive relationships could face more public scrutiny, especially if both parties are known.
“What we see when we look at Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is that instead of just having a judge and jury, for example, you now have this whole public perception looking at him and saying, ‘OK, this is how I think this is the person I choose to believe,’ “But there are a lot of complications that come into play that not everyone will really understand,” Bach said.
Deb Heard is suing in Fairfax County, Virginia over an op-ed she wrote in December 2018 in the Washington Post that described herself as a “public figure who represents domestic violence.” His lawyers say the article defamed him even though he never mentioned his name.
Heard took the podium last week and is currently being questioned by Depp’s attorney. She testified about her marriage to Depp, detailing years of alleged physical and sexual abuse. However, the prevailing sentiment on social media is that she is lying.
Bach says that broadcasting the trial live nearly every day of the week for over a month allowed the public to critically assess not only Depp and Heard and their allegations, but the victims of the alleged abuses in general and their credibility.
“When we look at it from the perspective of evidence, the court depends on what someone can prove, and given that this domestic violence and domestic violence often takes place in secret, this can be very difficult, and can complicate the ability of victims,” Bach said.
Bach said the judge may consider 911 calls, written statements or testimonies, photos of injuries, audio recordings, and hospital and medical records in cases of alleged abuse. However, all of that may not be enough.
“One of the other aspects is credibility, which can be a little muddier because the people who have been abused, they will all deal with it and process it in their own way,” she said.
Bach says the reaction to Heard’s online testimony amplifies the alleged victims’ fears when discussing whether abuse claims will be brought to court, even though the average person’s trial will not be shown live.
“Even if they’re not in such a public forum, knowing that there’s kind of a heavy burden on them and this harsh examination of what they’re trying to bring up, it really highlights the difficulties people can go through in making these allegations in any way.”
However, Bach said it is important to remember that despite public scrutiny, the verdict is ultimately up to the judge or jury, depending on the trial and its location. Juries in civil law cases in Canada are rare
“Ultimately, there’s one judge looking at the matter and assessing what evidence can be presented, credibility during the examination in the trial and really making sure it meets some sort of burden of proof,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that things happened or didn’t happen.”
Dealing with sexual and partner violence
A recent survey by the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) found that 32 percent of assault survivors in Canada felt they would be judged, blamed or shamed if they spoke, while 27 percent felt they would not be believed and 18 percent felt they would not. for the help they need.
According to the organization, intimate partner violence and sexual violence are among the “most harmful and unreported crimes” because survivors typically face scrutiny when they speak up, one reason they may not feel safe to do so.
This is a “serious problem,” Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the CWF, told CTVNews.ca.
“Blaming women, girls, and gender-diverse people for the abuse they are subjected to… is a dominant cultural narrative that has prevailed for a long time,” Gunraj said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.
Gunraj noted that “the narratives of blame are more visible and impactful” due to social media.
“Celebrities can face a lot of public censure, disbelief and offensive reactions when they say they have been abused. At the same time celebrity abusers can be excused from their behavior because they are liked on screen.”
Gunraj called such behavior “unacceptable” and said anyone who disclosed alleged abuse deserved to be heard and treated with respect. However, she said that did not happen with Depp’s defamation trial.
Gunraj said the “stinging reactions” on social media to Heard’s testimony and her treatment “may discourage survivors from speaking out about their lives.” This is dangerous, she says, because it can prevent those who are allegedly abused from getting the help they need and make them feel that they “have to suffer alone and in silence.”
“The conditions that make it difficult for people to come forward and believe, and that put them under fire for not being ‘the right kind of victim’, are the same conditions that enable a culture of silencing, blame and disparagement to thrive,” Gunraj said.
Concerns for women who follow
A marriage counselor who worked with Heard and Depp in 2015 testified last month at the start of the trial that they had engaged in “mutual abuse,” apparently blaming both parties. Gunraj said the term can be “extremely misleading” because it obscures the gender power dynamics in allegedly abusive relationships.
While I acknowledge that anyone can be abused in a relationship, the data shows that some people are at greater risk.
“In Canada, women, girls, and people of different genders experience high levels of abuse in romantic relationships, and this is directly related to the gender injustice they deal with in general,” Gunraj said.
Regardless of how the case ends, Gunraj said she hopes Depp’s defamation trial against Heard shows “the amount of work we need to do to support people who speak up better and take seriously the need to prevent abuse in the first place.”
She added that she was concerned that not doing so would be a step backwards in protecting women from abusive relationships and sexual violence, and for the entire #MeToo movement.
Gunraj said those who expressed their feelings on social media and called Heard a liar needed to “highlight” themselves if the blame for historically survivors was to change. She says the public should respond to alleged reports of abuse with “care and support, rather than stigma, silencing and judgment.”
“Those who have faced abuse have done so much to say #MeToo. They have put themselves on the line by the millions and it is time for us around them to respond to the call to action on what we are going to do to change it,” Gunraj said.