Stanford law professor Michele Dauber has denounced the decision by the judge in the sensational Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial to allow testimony to be televised and livestreamed, saying the cameras turn the case into “a circus” that will stop other domestic violence victims from coming forward.
“First of all, forcing Heard to describe sexual assault on TV is disgusting,” Dauber said in an email to this news organization. Dauber also is a nationally known advocate for survivors of sexual violence. “I cannot imagine why the judge thought that was appropriate. That alone will be chilling of victims’ willingness to come forward.”
In a tweet, Dauber also called the decision by Judge Penney Azcarate of the Circuit Court in Fairfax County “unconscionable,” saying the gavel-to-gavel coverage “has created a toxic environment for all victims of sexual and domestic abuse.” Dauber said, “I cannot imagine what public interest she thought justified this carnival.”
The decision of Judge Azcarate to put the Depp trial on television has created a toxic environment for all victims of sexual and domestic abuse. I cannot imagine what public interest she thought justified this carnival. It’s unconscionable #IStandWithAmberHeard pic.twitter.com/btrr2S9ipn
— Michele Dauber (@mldauber) May 25, 2022
Dauber is raising a decades-long national debate about cameras in the courtroom that goes back to at least the 1930s, according to to the Columbia Journalism Review. That’s when newsreel editors disseminated dramatic witness testimony in the Lindbergh baby case, but the debate flares up whenever high-profile suspects go to trial, from the Menendez brothers to OJ Simpson to Derek Chauvin, the white former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd.
Dauber’s comments point to the thorny issues particular to live coverage of the Depp-Heard case, which people can watch on Court TV or via livestream on the Law and Crime Network and other sites.
Depp has sued Heard for defamation because she wrote a 2018 op-ed in the Washington Post in which she refers to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.”
While Heard didn’t name Depp as her pained perpetrator in the op-ed, he says it’s strongly implied that she’s naming him as her abuser because she first accused him of domestic violence when she sought a temporary restraining order during their 2016 divorce. Depp said the op-ed severely damaged his career and ability to make tens of millions of dollars per film. Heard is countersuing him for defamation.
America has indeed become riveted by the lurid spectacle of a rich and world-famous movie star and his ex-wife testifying about their tumultuous marriage. Depp and Heard have shared intimate details about angry fights fueled by red wine and drugs, and traded allegations of hitting, punching and other abuse, all against the lavish backdrops of Los Angeles penthouses, a private island in the Bahamas and an Australian mansion.
People on social media have clearly been watching all those moments in order to pick apart each and every detail, but since the start of the trial, public opinion has overwhelmingly favored Depp, at least judging by posts on TikTok, Twitter and other social media, NPR reported this week. As of Monday morning, the hashtag #IStandWithAmberHeard has garnered about 8.2 million views, while #JusticeForJohnnyDepp has earned about 15 billion views, NPR said.
People have scoured Heard’s testimony and body language for what they say are inconsistencies or for evidence of duplicity. Among other things, they have called Heard “a liar,” “repugnant” or worse for alleging that she was sexually assaulted by Depp in 2015. She said that he, under the influence of MDMA, repeatedly hit her in the face, ripped off her nightgown, bent her over backward on a bar and penetrated her with a liquor bottle.
Dauber said the social media abuse by Depp’s fans against Heard have been “pretty appalling,” which is going to make “all victims even more fearful” of being publicly shamed and excoriated.
Another popular hashtag has been #AmberHeardIsALiar, which Dauber said points to the No. 1 fear of domestic violence and sexual assault victims.
“The main thing victims fear, above all else, is being accused of lying,” Dauber said. She said the “Pirates of the Caribbean” actor is using “this televised trial to publicly drag a woman for merely alluding to her experience from her perspective — not naming him, not giving details, just for characterizing her own subjective experience of becoming a ‘ public figure’ regarding domestic violence as the result of seeking a temporary restraining order.”
Over the decades, the debate about televising court proceedings has centered on several points of contention, according to Jon Allsop, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review.
“Advocates of the practice tend to argue that broadcasting court proceedings facilitates scrutiny of the legal system, and basic transparency,” Allsop wrote. “Courts generally allow members of the public to attend; in the digital age, what’s the justification for keeping physical limits on access?”
Opponents of the practice say that live TV coverage often puts defendants at a disadvantage and changes the courtroom dynamics of trials in undesirable ways, CJR said. Among other things, it encourages lawyers to play to the court of public opinion, rather than to the actual court. The trial becomes less about the law or the facts of the case and more about which side puts on a more compelling show, other opponents have said.
“I think transparency is bull,” Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California, told Washington Post entertainment writer Steven Zeitchik in 2021. “If you buy into the concept, you’re buying into the bull, because you’re accepting the fact that this is a legitimate process that’s blind.”
For Dauber, broadcasting the Depp/Heard trial is not serving the cause of transparency, or any other matter of public interest.
“It never should have gone on this long or gotten this far and it’s a catastrophe for survivors around the world,” Dauber concluded.