Laura Parker

The internet exploded during the six-week defamation trial of dueling lawsuits between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, and the social-media frenzy continued as the verdict released on June 1, awarding $10.4 million in damages to Depp, and $2 million to Heard. The jury unanimously decided that Heard’s statements about domestic abuse were unsubstantiated and that her public comments were defamatory to Depp’s reputation and career; the court of public opinion largely agreed.

Laura Parker

Now, as the social media frenzy and public controversy tapers, and Depp and Heard begin picking up the pieces of their lives, a large community of people are just starting to feel the lasting and disturbing impact of this case: survivors of abuse.

While the verdict appears to be ushering in necessary accountability for public accusations, the trial itself deepened three unsettling fears for many current survivors of abuse: their stories won’t be believed; they could be publicly ridiculed; and, by speaking up, they may even face defamation charges for sharing their experiences.

Ultimately, there was only one outcome for victims of abuse in the Depp-Heard trial, regardless of the verdict: Survivors lose. 

☀ MORE IN OPINION

If Amber Heard lied, survivors lose.

Throughout the trial, many survivors came out publicly against Heard and her testimony, claiming that she was hijacking their survivorship and that she was lying about abuse. Many shared their own reactions to trauma, the realities of mental health, and the manners in which survivors of abuse typically communicate. To many survivors, Heard’s testimony just didn’t ring true.

One survivor posted on Twitter: “I have been incredibly triggered watching Amber Heard speaking over the past two days. As a DV survivor I expected it, but not in this way… . She is telling a story, abuse isn’t a story. It’s a list of traumas.”

If Heard lied about her abuse, as the jury concluded and as the general public largely agrees, this trial becomes a major loss for those actually suffering from violence. When a public figure claims abuse with such graphic and elaborate detail, and then that abuse is found to be a gross misrepresentation of the facts, the public’s trust of survivor testimonies is weakened.

If Amber Heard was telling the truth, survivors lose.

If Heard truly was a victim of domestic violence in any way, society’s treatment of her was nothing short of inhumane. And, for those facing abuse and considering the brave work of speaking up, imagine the damage and fear the public’s reaction to the trial delivered to them. Not only has Heard’s account not been believed, but she’s been publicly ridiculed, suffered death threats, and been reduced to a caricature.

The worst part is, domestic violence already is a seriously underreported crime because of these fears and others. About 70% of domestic violence never is reported to the authorities, research says. Globally, the World Health Organization reports that 1 in 3 women are victims of intimate partner violence or sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes. In my work at The Exodus Road fighting sex trafficking, the share of victims who report is even smaller.

For the survivors who believe Heard and for future survivors, this outcome fuels the fear that their stories may be disregarded even if they try to advocate for themselves. As Maureen Curtis, vice president of criminal justice programs at Safe Horizon, told Rolling Stone, “‘Survivors watching this will rethink everything they say out loud about what happened to them, and the potential of being sued and dragged through a court process for saying something they know is true, but they could be found guilty of defamation. It’s a scary place to be.’”

It’s likely we will never know the number of survivors who will now continue to suffer in silence – either because the trial made it harder for their stories to be believed or because the trial scared them away from telling those stories in the first place.


Laura Parker, of Colorado Springs, is CEO and co-founder of The Exodus Road, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit that fights human trafficking.


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Mike Littwin

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