'Suffer in silence:' Experts worry of fallout from public reaction to Amber Heard's testimony

As Johnny Depp's defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard stretches into its fifth week, experts say public reaction to Heard's testimony sends a perilous reminder that despite the 'MeToo' movement, the credibility of alleged victims of abuse can be fragile.

Alyssa Bach, associate lawyer at Shulman & Partners LLP in Toronto, explained in a telephone interview to CTVNews.ca on Tuesday that the defamation trial highlights the power imbalances in abusive relationships.

Characteristics of power imbalances include financial disparities, a large age difference, signs of manipulation and violent behaviour, and changes in temperament – all factors that have been reported in Depp and Heard's marriage, as per the trial.

People in allegedly abusive relationships can face greater public scrutiny, Bach said, especially if both parties are well-known.

"What we're seeing when we look at Johnny Depp and Amber Heard is that instead of just having, say, a judge and a jury, you now have this whole public perception that's looking at it and saying, 'Well, this is how I think and … therefore this is the person who I am choosing to believe,' but there's so many complexities that come into play that really not everybody's going to understand," Bach said.

Depp is suing Heard in Virginia's Fairfax County Circuit Court over a December 2018 op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post describing herself as "a public figure representing domestic abuse." His lawyers say he was defamed by the article even though it never mentioned his name.

Heard took the stand last week and is currently being cross-examined by lawyers for Depp. She testified about her marriage to Depp, detailing years of alleged physical and sexual abuse in graphic detail. Yet the sentiment on social media in response is that she's lying.

Having the trial livestreamed nearly every weekday for more than a month has let the public critically assess not only Depp and Heard and their respective claims, Bach says, but alleged abuse victims in general and their credibility.

"When we're looking at it from an evidentiary perspective, the court's relying on what somebody can prove, and given that this family violence and domestic violence often happens in private, this can be very difficult, and it can complicate the ability for victims of abuse to put forward their case," Bach said.

Bach said a judge may consider 911 calls, written statements or testimonies, photos of injuries, audio recordings, hospitals and medical records in alleged cases of abuse. However, all of that may still not be enough.

"One of the other aspects is credibility, which can be even more muddy because people who've experienced abuse, they're all going to deal with it and process it in their own way," she said.

Bach says the reaction to Heard's testimony online amplifies the concerns of alleged victims when debating whether to take claims of abuse to court, even though the average person's trial would not be on live video display.

"Even if they're not going to be in such a public forum, knowing that there's this kind of high burden on them and this harsh scrutiny on what they're trying to put forward, it's really highlighting the difficulties that people can go through in raising these claims in any format," she said.

However, Bach said it is important to remember that despite the public scrutiny, the verdict ultimately comes down to a judge or jury, depending on the trial and its location. Juries in civil law cases in Canada are rare

"It's ultimately one judge who's looking at it and they're assessing what evidence has been able to be put forward, the credibility during examination at a trial and really making sure that it's meeting kind of the burden of proof," she said. "It doesn't necessarily mean that things did or didn't happen."

RESPONDING TO SEXUAL AND PARTENER VIOLENCE

A recent survey from the Canadian Women's Foundation (CWF) found that 32 per cent of abuse survivors in Canada felt they would be judged, blamed or shamed if they spoke out, while 27 per cent felt they wouldn't be believed and 18 per cent felt they wouldn't be given the help they needed.

According to the organization, partner violence and sexual violence are among the "most harmful and underreported crimes" because survivors typically face scrutiny when they speak out, which is one of the reasons they may not feel safe to do so.

Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement at the CWF, told CTVNews.ca this is a "serious problem."

"Blaming women, girls, and gender-diverse people for the abuse they face… is a mainstream cultural narrative that has trended for a long time," Gunraj said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

Gunraj noted these "blaming narratives are even more visible and influential" due to social media.

"Being so visible in public to so many people, famous people can face a lot of public blaming, disbelief and abusive reactions when they say they were abused. Abusers who are famous can at the same time be excused for their behaviour because they’re admired on screen," she explained.

Gunraj called such behaviour "unacceptable" and said everyone who discloses alleged abuse deserves to be heard and treated with respect. However, she said that is not happening with the Depp defamation trial.

Gunraj said the "vitriolic reactions" on social media to Heard's testimony and her treatment "may very well discourage survivors from speaking out in their own lives." She says this is dangerous as it can prevent those who have been allegedly abused from getting the help they need and leave them feeling like "they have to suffer alone in silence."

"Conditions that make it difficult for people to come forward and be believed, that put them under fire for not being 'the right kind of victim,' are the same conditions that enable a culture of silencing, blame and belittling to flourish," Gunraj said.

CONCERNS FOR THE WOMEN WHO FOLLOW

A marriage counselor who worked with Heard and Depp in 2015 testified last month at the start of the trial that they engaged in "mutual abuse," appearing to place blame on both parties. Gunraj said this term can be "very misleading" as it obscures the gendered power dynamics in allegedly abusive relationships.

While she acknowledged that anyone can experience abuse in a relationship, data shows that certain people are at higher risk.

"In Canada, women, girls, and gender-diverse people face high levels of abuse in romantic relationships, and that's directly tied to the gender injustices they deal with at large," Gunraj said.

Regardless of how the case concludes, Gunraj said she hopes Depp's defamation trial against Heard shows "how much work we have to do to better support people who speak out and take seriously the need to prevent abuse in the first place."

She added that she worries not doing so would be a step back in protecting women against abusive relationships and sexual violence, and for the entire #MeToo movement.

Gunraj said those expressing sentiment on social media labelling Heard as a liar need to "turn the spotlight" on themselves if the blame survivors historically face is to change. She says the public should respond to alleged reports of abuse with "care and support, rather than stigma, silencing and judgement."

"Those who have faced abuse have already done so much to say #MeToo. They have put themselves on the line in the millions and it’s about time for us around them to answer the call to action about what we're going to do to change this dynamic," Gunraj said.