The potentially damaging impact of the Depp-Heard trial

U.S.

Actor Amber Heard, left, and actor Johnny Depp appear in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., Thursday, May 5, 2022. Depp sued his ex-wife Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court after she wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool Photo via AP)

(NewsNation) — The trial in Johnny Depp’s libel case against Amber Heard is drawing to a close, leaving in its wake rhetoric that some experts find unsurprising and potentially harmful.

Domestic violence expert and former University of Southern California lecturer CarolAnn Peterson worries that the public’s response to the trial might dissuade victims of domestic violence from reporting their abusers.

“It puts forth the whole concept of ‘who’s going to believe me?’ … A lot of victims, especially those in entertainment, are going to be more reluctant if they think this is going to be public, that it’s going to be spread all over social media,” Peterson said.

It’s part of the reason Peterson and other advocates are opposed to televising trials.

“Then you’re putting two people on trial before the American public and asking them to choose, and that’s not fair to either side, but it’s definitely not fair to a victim of domestic violence,” Peterson said.

As testimony in the case began, a separate trial unfolded online — one of opposing hashtags and TikToks reenacting emotional testimony.

The full impact will be hard to quantify, but the trial is another swing of the pendulum as the nation’s conversations about domestic abuse and accountability continue to evolve, University of New Haven criminal justice professor Tracy Tamborra said. She spoke to NewsNation about the topic of domestic violence in general, and not about the specific facts of the Depp v. Heard case.

“I thought what (the #MeToo movement) would have taught the general public is to withhold judgment until all the facts are clear,” Tamborra said.

The appetite for public shaming long outdates the #MeToo movement’s push for accountability, said Chitra Raghavan, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice psychology professor. It’s rooted in ideas about power and gender and can be traced back to public hangings or tar and feathering, she said.

“Men and women are being caught up in the storm, if you will,” Raghavan said. “And I think many people, when the storm sort of calms down, are going to say, ‘What was I doing? What was I thinking? Why was I part of that?'”

Depp didn’t escape backlash from the allegations when they initially surfaced in 2016. He spoke at length with GQ in 2018, noting that people looked at him differently and he worried how the allegations might impact his children. Heard, however, now bears the brunt of public criticism, which has taken aim at everything from her facial expressions as she cried on the stand to what she wore while she testified.

Beyond gender and power dynamics is a struggle to accept nuance and break away from the idea of a “pure victim,” Tamborra said. Heard and Depp have both accused the other of abuse, further challenging peoples’ understanding of victimization, Tamborra said.

“This very much aligns with the fact that when we think we know someone, we’re willing to give them the benefit of the doubt a little bit more,” she said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing relationship abuse in any form, help is available. The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides free, confidential support 24/7/365. Text START to 88788, call 1-800-799-SAFE(7233), or chat online at TheHotline.org. You are not alone.

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