In one of the most famous and public trials between a divorced couple to date, all eyes were on Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – two Hollywood actors once in love, claiming the other committed violence against them.
But the jury’s mixed verdict was largely in favor of Depp and the court of public opinion seemed to overwhelmingly side with the actor most known for playing a mischievous but lovable pirate in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Internet super-sleuths and influencers went to great lengths to dismantle Heard’s testimony in support of Depp.
But advocates for survivors of domestic violence called the whole trial a spectacle, causing more harm than good and saw no cause for celebration at its conclusion. Instead they warned the course of the trial – and its outcome – had caused harm to the cause of tackling domestic violence and helping its victims.
Michelle Sacks, director of training at the Houston Area Women’s Center, said coverage of the trial was inescapable – visible everywhere from cellphone screens to televisions in doctors’ offices to newspapers and magazines in checkout lines at grocery stores. For some survivors of domestic violence, that served as a trigger – especially for those considering coming forward with their stories for the first time.
“I’m sure, it has brought up a lot of feelings. So if you think about survivors that have been trying to heal privately – this definitely, you know, can ignite a trauma response sometimes,” she said.
She said she hoped that the outcome of the trial would not affect those wanting to tell their own stories.
“Just because the jury decided that way, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. I think that’s really important to kind of get across – just to believe anyone that may disclose something to you. And if you know that someone is struggling, just let them know that they didn’t deserve it, that it’s not their fault, and that there are services available. It doesn’t have to be anything that’s current.”
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in four women and one in nine men experience severe intimate partner violence while one in three women and one in four men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner.
Some online commenters on the trail suggested both parties were wrong and chalked it up to a deeply toxic relationship, where the responsibility should be shared equally. But Sacks said violence in relationships is not always that simple.
“I’m going to tell you right now that there is always, always a primary aggressor. So sometimes, what we see is if there’s kind of maybe some violence on both sides, it could be you have the primary [aggressor] and that the secondary is just responding to what’s going on.
“It’s not easy to try to figure that out. I’m not saying there’s this magic formula. It definitely takes a lot of work to try to figure it out.”
Marta Prada Peláez, the chief executive officer of Family Violence Prevention Services in San Antonio, Texas, said it was important to take into consideration power dynamics. That power could be determined by who is physically larger, or more famous or wealthier.
“Johnny Depp is the pirate of the Caribbean. He’s [Edward] Scissorhands. He is an adorable monster. There is an element of of sympathy that you develop because the character has been made to do that to you emotionally. So I think that he exploited that. In a relationship where there is domestic violence, there cannot be ever two abusers or two victims. That does not happen. That is not domestic violence. Domestic violence has only one abuser.”
Despite her best efforts to avoid the trial, Peláez called it an unnecessary spectacle in which there were no winners and the only losers were the victims of domestic violence.
She said she hoped the trial did not affect survivors or set them back emotionally and to remember this was a trial that determined if someone was defamed, not whether or not someone was physically abused.
“We cannot allow the victims to fall back on any intention to seek help and to seek resources simply because this has happened. It’s going to be more difficult.
“They already lack the trust in the system. All systems have failed them time and time again.”