On a near-daily basis, the ongoing defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard seems to take another turn for the worse.
Depp is currently suing Heard, whom he was married to from 2015 to 2017, over a 2018 Washington Post op-ed she wrote about surviving domestic violence. The op-ed came two years after Heard publicly accused Depp of abuse in the midst of their 2016 split. So far, the trial has been pretty difficult to stomach: Depp allege that Heard once defecated on his side of their marital bed and that she severed his finger after throwing a liquor bottle at him. Heard has alleged that Depp sexually assaulted her with a liquor bottle and beat her. And texts have emerged between Depp and actor Paul Bettany in which Depp likens his ex-wife to a witch and writes: ‘’Let’s drown her before we burn her!!!’’ and “I will fuck her burnt corpse afterward to make sure she is dead.”
This week, Depp brought on a clinical and forensic psychologist as a witness to testify that she met with Heard for 12 hours in 2021 and concluded that Heard has borderline personality disorder (BPD) and histrionic disorder. The psychologist testified that both of these disorders can manifest in an individual needing to be the center of attention at all times, prompting them to make up stories or frame themselves as the victim.
This is an approach that Holly Davis, a family law attorney at Kirker and Davis, sees often in her work on domestic violence cases. “Mental health is commonly used in trials to scapegoat someone, or to vilify them further,” Davis told Jezebel in an interview. “Many people call my office and claim that their spouse is a ‘narcissist’ or ‘bipolar,’ but most people do not know what that means.”
According to Davis, Depp’s use of the psychologist as a witness is meant to convince jurors “to believe that [Heard’s] recollection of events is untrue,” and that her “potential mental instability” renders her “unable to tell the truth.” When individuals allege they’ve experienced sexual or domestic violence, particularly in high-profile cases like this, we’ll often see claims about their mental health made in an effort to detract from their credibility.
It’s certainly notable that despite how deeply disturbing allegations have been made on both sides of this trial, the most salient narrative that’s taken hold is that Heard, not Depp, is a crazy, unreliable narrator.
Depp has previously cited drugs, alcohol, and substance use struggles as the source of some of his admitted acts of violence. And his invocations of his mental health have been treated as justification or rationalization of his behavior, rather than a reason he shouldn’t be believed. A 2018 lawsuit against the actor alleges that he punched a male crew member on a movie set whilst on a drunken tirade; the attack and the male crew member’s allegations largely slipped through the cracks in the public consciousness, while Heard’s 2016 allegations continue to be widely questioned and disbelieved.
Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor overseeing domestic violence cases and president of West Coast Trial Lawyers, says the recent focus on questioning only Heard’s mental condition is a tactic to “dirty her up and really attack her credibility.”
“They’re trying to paint this picture of a monster, and to kind of play into the stereotypes about liars, unstable women,” Rahmani told Jezebel. “It’s the same thing, or similar, in sexual assault cases I’ve seen where accused men will invoke the victims’ past sexual history, the way the woman was dressed. It’s about credibility.”
In another uniquely high-profile gender-based violence case, the legal team defending Stanford rapist Brock Turner focused its efforts on portraying Chanel Miller, his victim, as a chronic alcoholic who couldn’t recall the events of the night he assaulted her, and lacked the mental capacity to be trusted. In Heard’s case, Rahmani says Depp’s legal team is essentially asserting “she’s borderline [BPD], so therefore, she’s a narcissistic, pathological liar.” Ableism as it pertains to mental health and sexism are often intertwined when it comes to picking apart the character and credibility of women who say they were harmed.
In contrast, we’ve previously seen the mental states of men accused of harm used to absolve them of responsibility. Earlier this year, amid concerns that Kanye West’s obsessive treatment of ex Kim Kardashian and her boyfriend, Pete Davidson, amounted to stalking, many of West’s supporters cited his struggles with bipolar disorder and other conditions to dismiss the concerns.
As Rahmani notes, sexual assault and gender-based violence are vastly underreported. He fears treatment of Heard’s mental health by Depp’s lawyers, characterizing her as crazy and dishonest, is the sort of retaliation that discourages reporting. “There’s this misperception that sexual violence is widely falsely reported, and that’s really what Depp and his team are relying on and trying to do here,” he said.
Davis says that as the topic of mental health is increasingly destigmatized, she hopes we’ll see fewer and fewer cases in which it’s used to attack the credibility of women who say they were harmed. “As it becomes more common nowadays for people to have anxiety diagnosis, or temporary depression, I believe it will be less and less of a shortcut for people to successfully use in trial to vilify someone.”
The defamation trial launched by Depp comes after he first filed a $50 million lawsuit against Heard over her op-ed, in March 2019. Heard asked a Virginia judge to dismiss the suit, citing a 2020 ruling in the UK that tossed Depp’s lawsuit against a tabloid for calling him a “wife-beater” in reference to Heard’s allegations. But last summer, a Virginia judge allowed Depp’s new lawsuit to move forward, and the actor has said he hopes it will “bring things to light” and clear his name after a “surreal five years.”