IIn one of the most famous and public trials between a divorced couple, all eyes were on Johnny Depp and Amber Heard — two Hollywood actors who were once in love and who have claimed the other violated them.
But the jury’s mixed verdict was largely in Depp’s favour, and the court of public opinion seemed to overwhelmingly side with the actor best known for playing a mischievous but lovable pirate in the Bane films of the Caribbean”. Internet supersleuths and influencers went to great lengths to dismantle Heard’s statement of support for Depp.
But advocates for domestic violence survivors called the entire process a spectacle that did more harm than good and saw no reason to celebrate after its conclusion. Instead, they warned that the course of the trial – and its outcome – had damaged the cause of fighting domestic violence and helping its victims.
Michelle Sacks, training director at the Houston Area Women’s Center, said coverage of the process is inevitable — seen everywhere, from cell phone screens to televisions in doctor’s offices to newspapers and magazines at grocery store checkouts. This has been a catalyst for some domestic violence survivors — particularly those considering publishing their stories for the first time.
“I’m sure it aroused a lot of feelings. So when you think of survivors who have tried to heal privately, it can definitely trigger a trauma response at times,” she said.
She said she hopes the outcome of the trial will not affect those who want to tell their own stories.
“Just because the jury made that decision doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I think that’s really important to get it across in some way – to just believe anyone who might tell you something. And if you know someone is struggling, just let them know they don’t deserve it, it’s not their fault, and that services are available. It doesn’t have to be current.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women and one in nine men experience serious intimate partner violence, while one in three women and one in four men has experienced some form of physical violence at the hands of a partner.
Some online commentators on the trail suggested both parties were wrong, attributing it to a deeply toxic relationship where responsibility should be shared equally. But Sacks said violence in relationships isn’t always that simple.
“I’ll tell you right now that there’s always, always a primary attacker. So what we see sometimes is when there might be some violence on both sides, you might have the primary [aggressor] and that the secondary is just reacting to what’s going on.
“It’s not easy to find out. I’m not saying there is a magic formula. It definitely takes a lot of work to try to figure it out.”
Marta Prada Peláez, chief executive officer of Family Violence Prevention Services in San Antonio, Texas, said it’s important to consider power dynamics. This power could be determined by who is physically larger, more famous, or wealthier.
“Johnny Depp is the Pirate of the Caribbean. He is [Edward] scissor hands. He’s an adorable monster. There is an element of sympathy that you develop because the character was created to do this to you emotionally. So I think he took advantage of that. There can never be two perpetrators or two victims in a domestic violence relationship. That does not happen. This isn’t domestic violence. Domestic violence has only one perpetrator.”
Despite her best efforts to avoid trial, Peláez called it an unnecessary spectacle in which there were no winners and the only losers were victims of domestic violence.
She said she hopes the process doesn’t affect survivors or set them back emotionally, recalling that this was a process to determine whether someone was defamed, not whether or not someone was physically abused .
“We cannot allow victims to resort to intent to seek help and seek resources simply because this has happened. It’s getting harder.
“They already lack confidence in the system. All the systems failed them time and time again.”