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 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.
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.