Fears of chilling effect on domestic abuse allegations after Depp/Heard trial

Fears of chilling effect on domestic abuse allegations after Depp/Heard trial

Fears have been raised of a chilling effect on victims and survivors of domestic abuse coming forward following a high-profile court battle between Hollywood actor Johnny Depp and his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard.

A jury in Fairfax County, Virginia yesterday awarded around $10.4 million in damages to Mr Depp after finding that he was defamed on three counts by Ms Heard in a 2018 newspaper article in which she described herself as a survivor of domestic abuse but did not refer to her ex-husband by name.

The jury also awarded $2 million to Ms Heard after upholding one part of her counter-suit regarding a claim by his lawyer that one of her allegations amounted to a “hoax”.

The verdict stands in sharp contrast with an earlier libel trial in London, in which a High Court judge sided with a major British newspaper by finding that there was enough evidence in 12 of 14 incidents in which Mr Depp was alleged to have been violent to Ms Heard to meet the civil standard of proof.

Dr Charlotte Proudman, an academic and barrister based in London, tweeted: “When a trained High Court Judge (who knew how to handle the media) reviewed the evidence, he found Depp to have physically assaulted Heard on 12 of 14 occasions. But in the US where the court was a media circus, it became a popularity contest, which Depp most definitely won.”

Beyond the facts of the case, the trial was noteworthy for its enormous online following and the social media commentary which accompanied the televised proceedings. According to the BBC, videos tagged #justiceforjohnnydepp on TikTok had collectively amassed around 18 billion views before the verdict.

Commentators have expressed concerns that the ruling will discourage victims from speaking about their experience of abuse, even if they do not name their abuser. Joanna Schroeder, a writer and media critic in Los Angeles, said: “The silence so many fought against for so many years will once again descend over survivors of sexual violence and domestic violence.”

Legal analysts have suggested Mr Depp’s choice of Fairfax County as the location for the lawsuit was deliberate, as proceedings there are televised and Virginia has relatively lax restrictions on so-called SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). Ms Heard’s legal team unsuccessfully tried to have the trial moved to California.

Virginia-based attorney Steven Krieger told FOX 5: “Anti-SLAPP statutes were created to give the little guy the opportunity to get the case dismissed relatively quickly and get their attorney’s fees. But there are some conditions and the conditions for every state are different. California’s anti-SLAPP statute is more robust than Virginia’s.”

Ms Heard’s legal team has 30 days to consider whether to appeal the jury’s verdict. Under a law which came into force just over a year ago, civil litigants in Virginia now have the right to appeal final judgments to the Court of Appeals of Virginia.

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