As celebrity spectacles go, Johnny Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard’s just-concluded defamation trial is one for the ages.
Between in-person courtroom appearances by the two stars and the airing of their toxic marriage’s very dirty laundry – rife with fights, broken bottles and physical assault – it is unlikely we will see as public a dissection of A-list lives for a long time.
Wednesday’s oddly split verdict is in the history books, with Depp largely the victor with a more than $10 million jury award but Heard claiming $2 million for a comment made by a Depp lawyer.
Depp’s $50 million libel suit was anchored to his claim that Heard’s 2018 opinion piece about domestic abuse for The Washington Post defamed him, even though he was not mentioned by name.
Heard then countersued for $100 million after Depp’s lawyer said her allegations were false.
Looking both forward and back, we ask legal experts to address questions raised by the trial.
Is this the final word in Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard?
“Both parties will likely appeal,” says Los Angeles defamation trial lawyer Jeff Lewis. In Depp’s case, his team may question how the jury could rule in his favor, but also award Heard money.
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For Heard, the appeal would likely center on the same issue. “She could argue the verdicts are inconsistent, no rational jury could find in favor of them both,” Lewis says.
But the chances of the outcome being changed are slim. “Appeals are not new trials, they’re an analysis of whether a fair trial was held. That is a very hard hurdle to overcome.”
Did social media taint the verdict?
The Internet was on fire during the trial, with a preponderance of fans in Depp’s corner. But that likely was n’t an influence on the result in his favor, says Tanya Acker, a civil litigator and co-host of CBS’ “Hot Bench.”
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“The jury was much closer to this than any of us were, and they were in the best position to judge the credibility of evidence, of witnesses, and of the parties themselves,” says Acker. “They saw more of this trial than the social media commentators did.”
While much of the social media commentary was “an attempt to make Depp and Heard field generals in a proxy culture war,” the verdict was rendered on “particular factual findings specific to this matter,” she says.
Why did jurors doubt Amber Heard’s testimony?
“Amber Heard lied about irrelevant facts and that’s what ultimately damaged her credibility,” says Neama Rahmani, president of the Los Angeles-based legal firm West Coast Trial Lawyers.
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Heard’s recounting of countless abuse episodes didn’t square with “picture of her injuries,” leading jurors to question her honesty, Rahmani says. Inconsistencies between her comments on the stand and her audio recordings of her also planted seeds of doubt. And ultimately, that she’s an actress came back to haunt her.
“The jury found her to be either inauthentic, overacting or not deserving of empathy,” he says. “A lot of Heard’s emotional cues on the witness stand did n’t line up with her testimony from her.”
How big a setback is this ruling for victims of assault?
Sentiment is split. Some lawyers say the setback is significant. “The fear already exists for victims, wondering if defense lawyers will question their truthfulness, bring up their sexual histories and make it difficult for victims to come forward,” says attorney Michael Mandell of Mandell Law in Woodland Hills, California.
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While courts are a recourse for assault victims, there is no way to “prevent the public from memeifying and sharing personal opinions,” adds Mandell, as the many attacks on Heard showed.
But other lawyers say this case is unique. “Amber Heard does not represent all women, and she should not represent all victims of domestic violence,” says Holly Davis of Austin, Texas-based Kirker Davis. “This trial will motivate supporters of the #MeToo movement to redouble their efforts for women in the workplace and in Hollywood to repair any damage this trial may have caused.”
Will Amber Heard’s win keep lawyers from badmouthing opponents?
Depp attorney Adam Waldman was quoted by The Daily Mail calling Heard’s abuse claims “a hoax” – a public comment that cost Depp’s team $2 million. The offending comment was made outside of the courtroom, which many lawyers now will surely take note of.
“Lawyers are learning that, although they’re protected when they make statements in court, they may not be protected once they make public statements,” says Omar Ochoa, a city attorney in Edinburg, Texas. Ochoa notes that the Texas Supreme Court is among many courts that hold fast to this rule.
“This portion of the jury’s verdict in favor of Amber Heard should be a forceful news flash to attorneys to be mindful of what they say about the other side when they’re out of the courtroom,” he says.
Can Johnny Depp’s and Amber Heard’s Hollywood careers rebound?
Depp and Heard are likely to experience vastly different repercussions from the trial, says Amber Melville-Brown, global head of media and reputation at global law firm Withersworldwide.
“I suspect many will want to be associated with the victor, so I do think his star will be in ascendancy,” she says of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star, adding that she would counsel the actor to be gracious in victory and work to present a different public face. “That can be an antidote to the things we saw of him in that trial, the nasty emails and such, that we did not like.”
Melville-Brown is less bullish on Heard’s career prospects. “If Hollywood does put her back on screen, will it be just as a circus spectacle, and will she want that?” she says. “This will likely be extremely difficult for Amber, because of how she was perceived in court and the finding of her against her. It will probably be a long and likely painful journey to rehabilitation, if she manages to get there.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism