Johnny Depp’s Trial Verdict Against Amber Heard Was a Pyrrhic Victory

Text messages started exploding on my phone Wednesday as I waited for my son’s school bus. As a divorce coach and advocate for victims of abuse, I know many women who were shocked when the jury sided with Johnny Depp in his defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard.

“The award for best actor in a defamation suit goes to Johnny Depp for misleading the jury, the judge, the media and the court of public opinion,” a woman going through a divorce with a troubled partner told me. She, like many other clients, was outraged that Depp received a $15 million verdict because Heard wrote in a 2018 opinion piece in The Washington Post that she was a “public figure representing domestic abuse” and “had the rare advantage of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.” (Although she never named Depp, she was perceived to be referring to him; he has denied all allegations of abuse.)

As movements to reform our family court system mount, this celebrity trial brought the pervasive power dynamics, usually behind closed doors, right into our living rooms.

I was also surprised by the result, but I don’t see the verdict as an outright victory similar to one of Depp’s triumphant scenes in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” And that’s not just because Heard also won a judgment in his favor as part of his countersuit: $2 million for Depp’s lawyer’s claim that the actor had staged an ambush for the police to catch Depp.

The biggest damage to Depp is that he can never save his reputation. He claimed that his image was destroyed by Heard’s op-ed, but the actual destruction actually came through the revelations made at trial. Despite the male star’s fan base, many people will never look at his beloved character Captain Jack the same way again, if he ever will be. allowed to repeat the role.

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“Even when you win, you lose,” Domenic Romano, a leading business and entertainment attorney in New York City, told me. “This may be a legal victory, but it’s not really a reputational victory, and it’s definitely not a moral victory for Johnny Depp or society in general.”

Romano credited Depp’s team with persuading the jury that he was more credible than Heard, enough to meet the highest legal standard of defamation (“actual malice”) that applies to public figures.

But it came at a high price. “I thought this whole thing was a terrible idea for him. I mean, how do you look good? Romano asked, citing the dirty laundry aired in London, where Depp lost a 2020 libel case against The Sun newspaper for calling him a “wife beater”. Then, Romano said, Depp proceeded to “bring him back to shore” with this lawsuit in a Virginia court.

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Among those clothes was the image of Depp writing profane messages on the wall in his own blood, his texts saying that he expected Heard’s “rotten corpse is decomposing in the goddamn trunk of a Honda Civic” and his drug use.

Heard didn’t come off as an angel, of course, as she admitted to punching Depp and not donating all of her divorce settlement to charity as promised. But the social media frenzy surrounding his stumble took on a life of its own, complete with TikTok videos mocking Heard with “turd” emojis and defending Depp as if he were Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The fact that so many Americans found pleasure in people’s domestic pain re-traumatized the victims. Many abuse survivors are now concerned that Depp’s victory in court appears to undermine the #MeToo movement by scaring them back into a cave of silence.

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“Survivors of domestic violence have gone back decades,” said Tina Swithin, who founded One Mom’s Battle. after a legal war with his ex. “The message that was sent loud and clear is that if you are a victim of abuse, you must remain silent about what you have endured or you will be subject to the wrath of public opinion, and you may suffer further abuse, as the perpetrators now turn the system judiciary into a gun.”

But I think it will mobilize women like never before. As movements to reform our family court system mount, this celebrity trial brought the pervasive power dynamics, usually behind closed doors, right into our living rooms. People across America saw what those of us who have survived the family court system face every day: power in the hands of men, money buying largest legal teams, charming narcissism and decision makers who do not see through the five star performance of a manipulator. We cannot let one battle decide the war.

“In a broader scheme, I don’t think this will set back the #MeToo movement,” agreed Romano. He noted that most defamation cases do not involve people who are already in the spotlight, and accusers will think twice before damaging their reputations like Depp did. “People will see that it is not a great idea to litigate a personal relationship. Victims will still be legitimately emboldened to come forward.”

Romano calls it a classic”Pyrrhic Victory” — a victory that inflicts such a catastrophic price that it is more or less a defeat. If you haven’t read your Greek mythology recently, it comes from the story of Pyrrhus of Epirus, who fought costly and ruinous battles with the Romans. Essentially, victory at any cost eventually means defeat.

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Don’t get me wrong: most victims of emotional and physical abuse are uninspired right now. And many, like me, are furious.

But we have two options: withdraw out of fear or use this case as an opportunity to educate others. More laws against domestic violence, like the groundbreaking law in my state of Connecticut Jennifer’s Law, which went into effect last October, are being expanded to make emotional abuse, such as “coercive control,” a consideration when issuing restraining orders and sentencing in family court cases. The problem is that, as it is, many lawyers, judges and ordinary Americans who sit on juries don’t know it when they see it. This case could be what finally brings understanding about this dynamic.

coercive control it is a form of psychological harm that can include manipulation, financial abuse, legal abuse, and the use of children as pawns. If you don’t recognize this insidious game, yes, Heard could look crazy and horrible in her reactions. She may not be our favorite victim, but the question is: why does she have to be?

Heard has vowed to appeal, though Romano said there would have to be significant new evidence or testimony, or a mistrial, for her to succeed.

In the meantime, the rest of us will get to work. We have to remember that each of the most fought movements in our country was not a straight line, but rather a roller coaster. Put on your belt.