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Opinion | Why Johnny Depp’s courtroom victory is a Pyrrhic one

Opinion | Why Johnny Depp’s courtroom victory is a Pyrrhic one

The texts started blowing up my phone Wednesday while I was waiting for my son’s school bus. As a divorce coach and advocate for abuse victims, I know a lot of women who were rocked by the jury siding with Johnny Depp in his defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard.

“The award for Best Actor in a Defamation Lawsuit goes to Johnny Depp for fooling the jury, judge, media and the court of public opinion,” a woman in divorce proceedings with a high-conflict partner told me. She, like many other clients, was outraged that Depp received a $15 million verdict because Heard wrote in a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post that she was a “public figure representing domestic abuse” and “had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.” (Though she never named Depp, she was widely perceived as referring to him; he has denied all allegations of abuse.)

As movements to reform our family court system grow louder, this celebrity trial brought the pervasive power dynamic usually behind closed doors right into our living rooms.

I was also shocked by the outcome — but I don’t see the verdict as an absolute win akin to one of Depp’s triumphant scenes from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” And that’s not just because Heard, too, got a judgment in her favor as part of her countersuit: $2 million for Depp’s lawyer’s assertion that the actress had organized an ambush for the police to trap Depp.

The bigger damage to Depp is that he can never salvage his reputation. He claimed his image was destroyed by Heard’s op-ed, but the real destruction actually came via the revelations made at the trial. Despite the male star’s fan base, many people will never look at his beloved character Captain Jack the same way again — if he’ll ever be allowed to reprise the role

“Even when you win, you lose,” Domenic Romano, a top business and entertainment attorney in New York City told me. “This may be a legal victory, but it’s not really a reputational victory, and definitely not a moral victory for Johnny Depp or society at large.”

Romano did credit Depp’s team with persuading the jury that he was more believable than Heard — enough to reach the higher legal standard of defamation (“actual malice”) that’s applied to public figures.

But it came at a high price. “I thought this whole thing was a terrible idea for him. I mean how do you look good?” Romano asked, citing the dirty laundry aired in London, where Depp lost a 2020 libel case against The Sun newspaper for calling him a “wife beater.” Then, Romano said, Depp proceeded to “bring it back to shore” with this lawsuit in a Virginia court. 

Among that laundry was the image of Depp writing profane messages on the wall in his own blood, his texts saying he hoped Heard’s “rotting corpse is decomposing in the f—ing trunk of a Honda Civic” and his drug use

Heard didn’t come off as an angel, of course, since she admitted hitting Depp and not donating all of her divorce settlement to charity as promised. But the social media frenzy surrounding her stumbles took on a life of its own — complete with TikTok videos mocking Heard with “turd” emojis and championing Depp like he was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

The fact that so many Americans found pleasure in people’s domestic pain retraumatized victims. Many abuse survivors are now worried that Depp’s courtroom victory seems to undermine the #MeToo movement by scaring them back into a cave of silence. 

“Survivors of domestic violence have been set back decades,” said Tina Swithin, who founded One Mom’s Battle after a legal war with her ex. “The message that was sent loud and clear is that if you are a victim of abuse, you must remain silent about what you’ve endured or you will be subjected to the wrath of public opinion, and you may be further abused as perpetrators will now weaponize the judicial system.” 

But I think it will mobilize women like never before. As movements to reform our family court system grow louder, this celebrity trial brought the pervasive power dynamic usually behind closed doors right into our living rooms. People across America saw what those of us who’ve survived the family court system face every day: power in the hands of men, money buying bigger legal teams, charming narcissism and decision makers who don’t see through a manipulator’s five-star performance. We cannot let one battle decide the war. 

“In the larger scheme, I do not think this will set back the MeToo movement,” Romano agreed. He noted that most defamation cases don’t involve people already in the spotlight, and accusers will think twice about damaging their reputation the way Depp did. “People will see it’s not a great idea to litigate a personal relationship. Victims will continue to be rightfully emboldened to come forward.”

Romano calls it a classic “Pyrrhic victory” — a win that inflicts such a catastrophic toll that it’s more or less a defeat. If you haven’t read your Greek mythology recently, it comes from the story of  Pyrrhus of Epirus who engaged in ruinous, costly battles with the Romans. Essentially, victory at any cost eventually means defeat.

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Don’t get me wrong — most victims of emotional and physical abuse do not feel inspired right now. And many, like me, are furious.

But we have two choices: Either retreat out of fear, or use this case as an opportunity to educate others. More domestic violence laws — like my state of Connecticut’s groundbreaking Jennifers’ Law that took effect last October — are expanding to make emotional abuse like “coercive control” a consideration in issuing restraining orders and making judgments in family court cases. The problem is that, as things stand, many attorneys, judges and regular Americans sitting on juries don’t recognize it when they see it. This case could be what finally brings understanding about this dynamic.

Coercive control is a form of psychological harm that can include manipulation, financial abuse, legal abuse and using children as pawns. If you don’t recognize this insidious game, yes, Heard could look crazy and awful in her reactions. She may not be our favorite victim, but the question is: Why does she have to be?  

Heard has vowed to appeal, though Romano said there would have to be significant new evidence or testimony, or an error in the trial, for her to succeed.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will get busy. We have to remember that every single hard-fought movement in our country was not a straight line — more like a rollercoaster. Strap in.

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© 2020 CHIQUE

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