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EVMS psychiatrist under fire after testimony in Depp v. Heard trial – The Virginian-Pilot

EVMS professor Dr. David Spiegel was on the stand as an expert witness in the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial, speaking for Heard about intimate partner violence and drug use. As seen Thursday, May 26, 2022. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot)
David Spiegel was a freshman in college when he learned that his younger brother, Allan, had been shot and killed when making a delivery for their family’s Manhattan luncheonette by someone who was on a combination of substances that included cocaine.
“So I had gone through that trauma and went through a lot of emotions myself, which kind of got me interested in mental health,” said Spiegel.
When he was 24 and a third-year medical student, the Long Island native was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“After that, I spent some time adjusting, I came around and said ‘this is the field for me, because hey, if I can do it, why can’t I help others?’” he said.
For over 30 years, Dr. Spiegel has been a psychiatrist and is now a teacher at Eastern Virginia Medical School and a provider at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.
Then, on Monday, he became internet-famous.
He took the stand in the highly-publicized trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s lawsuits against one another. He testified for a little more than three hours as an expert witness called by Heard’s lawyers about how the struggle with substances and other traits can affect the body and memory and how often substance abuse is linked to intimate partner violence.
Spiegel clashed with Depp’s lawyers on several occasions about the ethics of making such conclusions about Depp and Spiegel’s status as an expert on intimate partner violence.
Online, things started to get hostile quickly.
Dr. David Spiegel testifies in the courtroom at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax on Monday, May 23, 2022. (Steve Helber/AP)
Supporters of Depp mocked Spiegel for his mannerisms and by 2 a.m. Tuesday, online reviews for Spiegel were swamped with new negative comments and ratings. Before he took the stand, 20 reviews of his work had been posted on his WedMD page since 2016. By Tuesday morning, there were 153. By Wednesday morning, all the reviews of Spiegel on WebMD had been removed.
Spiegel said he knew it was coming — he’d seen Depp supporters attack the credibility and professionalism of a previous expert witness for Heard during the trial.
“I knew my day was coming,” he said. “I knew this was going to happen, so it didn’t catch me off-guard. When you hear it happen to you, it’s different from knowing it’s going to happen.”
He said he notified EVMS that such backlash would happen.
“I was flabbergasted that people would resort to that, but I’m certainly not surprised,” Spiegel said.
Spiegel said he became involved in the trial several years ago through the expert witness group he is a part of. He has been an expert witness in nearly 20 cases over 10 years, most of which were settled outside of court.
He said he wasn’t expecting it to be an open court trial.
“When I signed on, I did not expect that,” he said. “The lawyers didn’t tell me that either because I’m sure they expected it to be a closed trial. So I didn’t expect this of this magnitude.”
The vitriol that expert witnesses for Heard such as Spiegel have received is resounding into the public and could convince those who have suffered abuse from a partner not to seek justice, according to a statement from the Virginia Victim Assistance Network.
“When cases that involve domestic or sexual violence are made public, especially in such a sensationalized way, the misconceptions and prejudices held by the general public are only reinforced,” said in a statement from Kate Hanger, the group’s executive director.
Survivors of intimate partner violence are watching the case and are seeing how Depp’s defenders react to those advocating for Heard, according to another VVAN statement.
“The online reactions to the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp case reinforces every fear and hesitation a survivor considers as they go to trial,” the statement said. “As for Dr. Spiegel, who is only offering his expertise, he has been punished for his proximity to the case.”
The issue for Spiegel isn’t that people are angry with him, it’s the inappropriate way it has manifested, he said.
“If you’re angry at me, you have to express it constructively in the way that I could understand what you’re trying to say,” Spiegel said.
Depp supporters have ridiculed Spiegel online for his sparring with one of Depp’s lawyer’s during cross-examination.
“These are not light subjects in psychiatry. These are very important,” Spiegel said. “The guy who shot my brother, killed my brother, was on drugs and alcohol, so this is not a topic I take lightly.”
Spiegel said he reviewed private medical information about Heard and Depp and that from such information, doctors and caregivers frequently can come to conclusions without a need for an exam. Spiegel and Heard’s lawyers had asked that he be allowed to examine Depp, but they were denied.
He said he also believes Depp and his lawyers were acting disrespectfully while he was on the stand.
“For his lawyers and for Mr. Depp to smirk and laugh, it was really denigrating, it was really, I felt, denigrating to victims of trauma everywhere because I see this every day,” Spiegel said.
Spiegel said the way Depp fans are acting to his testimony is similar to how Depp himself has acted against Heard.
“Nothing good can happen when you express yourself through anger and violence,” Spiegel said.
Heard’s lawyers declined to comment until the trial is complete.
Spiegel was an expert witness for Heard and testified about the risk factors of intimate partner violence and behaviors associated with the abuse that Depp has displayed.
“In my opinion, based on a review of the evidence, based on my clinical experience, based on my publishing experience, based on my teaching experience, that Mr. Depp has behaviors that are consistent with both someone who has a substance use disorder as well as consistent behaviors of someone who is a perpetrator of intimate partner violence,” he said.
Spiegel reckoned he cared for patients numbering in the tens of thousands over his time as a provider and estimated about three out of every four of his patients have some kind of substance abuse problem, with many of them either victims or perpetrators of intimate partner violence.
He said he deals with patients who have someone in their lives who abuse drugs or alcohol on a “daily basis.”
“This is part of what psychiatry is,” he told the court.
During the trial Monday, Spiegel testified how drug use can change one’s personality.
“Substance abuse, both in the short term and long term, can affect the brain in terms of mood, behavior, cognition — meaning attention, concentration, memory, ability to control your behavior, as well as your overall level of functioning,” he said.
Spiegel said over half of those who abuse drugs also commit intimate partner violence.
“You are, quote unquote, colloquially playing with fire when you are talking about substances and intimate partner violence,” he said. “You are playing with fire.”
An attorney for Johnny Depp tried to argue against Spiegel’s classification as an expert witness on intimate partner violence, arguing that since Spiegel has written about it through a lens of trauma, he is not an expert on the exact subject.
“You cannot separate intimate partner violence and say that is a separate rubric aside from trauma,” Spiegel said.
Spiegel said he reviewed various medical records and other documents of Depp and Heard.
“I’ve seen a lot,” he said.
He told the jury though Heard has some traits of someone with borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorders, she did not have enough to meet criteria to be diagnosed with either. However, Depp had numerous issues that pointed to him as a cause of the issues as he fought Heard’s attempts to convince him to change.
Spiegel has written professionally about trauma that includes intimate partner violence and he said he sees it on a daily basis in his work.
“When we are discussing intimate partner violence, I think it’s imperative for the jury to know we are talking about repetitive behavior over periods of time, and the type of abuse can be any kind of physical, psychological, sexual — but just as important is for one of the parties to maintain some uneven element of control or to maintain power, control or authority, so there are a lot facets to intimate partner violence,” he said.
At one point, he sparred with a lawyer of Depp’s over a deposition in which Spiegel said his words were taken out of context about Depp being an idiot.
Spiegel said, in the context, he was referring to a decision by Depp to travel overnight before a legal deposition as being idiotic and that he does not describe clinical patients or victims as idiots.
He also sparred with Depp’s team over the Goldwater rule, which is a section of the American Psychiatric Association’s ethical standards, which warns that psychologists should not make a diagnosis about public figures’ mental health based on publicly available information and without examining the individuals. Spiegel is a fellow of the APA.
Spiegel said he reviewed private medical information about Heard and Depp and that from such information, doctors and caregivers frequently can come to conclusions from that information without a need for an exam. Spiegel and Heard’s lawyers had asked for Spiegel to be able to examine Depp but they were denied by the court.
At another point in his cross-examination, Depp’s lawyer asked Spiegel if he reviewed Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka in the 2005 film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and based his idea of the actor’s mental decline on his acting in the film.
Spiegel said he came to the conclusions about Depp from the variety of confidential and medical evidence from other doctors that was involved in the case that included medical tests of Depp’s memory as well as recognition for how substance abuse deteriorates all kind of health, including mental.
Depp also has traits of narcissism, including need for admiration, a sense of entitlement, enviousness, lack of empathy and a fragile self-esteem, according to Spiegel.
“I can probably say, with a reasonable certainty, that to some degree, this whole trial is,” — Spiegel was then interrupted by Depp’s lawyer who tried to object but the judge allowed Spiegel to continue — “that this whole trial in terms of narcissism, narcissistic insult, is what’s going on.”
Ian Munro, ian.munro@virginiamedia.com, 757-861-3369, @iamIanMunro
Copyright © 2021, The Virginian-Pilot
Copyright © 2021, The Virginian-Pilot


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