LLast week’s intermission in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard libel case, which resumes on Monday, temporarily halted a flood of disturbing testimony and slowed the public relations war between the two once-married actors, but the shadow court in public opinion has barely interrupted its deliberations on a matter followed impatiently throughout the world.
Part two of the Depp v Heard case in Fairfax, Va., will see Heard conclude his testimony, then undergo cross-examination by Depp’s legal team, before his lawyers call witnesses, including the Hollywood star. Ellen Barkin, who had a relationship with Depp in the 90s, and Heard’s sister, Whitney Henriquez.
But four weeks later, the terms of the deal have already been set. And this is not one case but two. In one, Depp claims defamation for a 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which Heard describes herself as a survivor of domestic violence; in the other, and perhaps more valuable to the actor, are his efforts to reclaim a reputation and career that were badly damaged when Heard took out a temporary restraining order against him in 2016. She disputes his assertion that his allegations are a hoax.
“He was ready to bring out all the ugly and dark sides of him. The details didn’t make it look good, and the public didn’t necessarily know about it, in order to clear its name of abuse,” said Los Angeles-based entertainment attorney Mitra Ahouraian. “To me, that’s powerful, because he’s trying to win the court of public opinion.”
But Heard also made his defense more complicated than necessary. “She had to establish that she was a victim of domestic violence, but through her testimony she took on a much greater burden of describing several ongoing episodes – not just the domestic violence but the sexual violence, the vaginal searches, the rape with a bottle,” said Dr. Jill Huntley Taylor of Taylor Trial Consulting.
The standard of defamation for public figures in the United States is high – Depp must prove that what was said was untrue and that Heard either knew it was untrue, or said it maliciously. But he could also win in the court of public opinion – mainly on social networks, and with moviegoers – by losing.
“His claim may not be viable in the court system, but he is definitely winning in the court of public opinion,” Ahouraian said. “People share clips they find endearing and don’t pay as much attention to things that may not make it look good, or dismiss them as a normal reaction to someone being an abuser.”
But Heard did not complete his testimony, nor was he placed on cross-examination.
“This case is far from over, and many experts have spent this week drawing conclusions from Ms. Heard’s testimony and discussing how Depp is likely to lose in court,” the Los attorney noted. Angeles, Allison Hope Weiner. “Even if he doesn’t prevail in court, the real question is whether audiences are ready to go see his films and the studios will reverse his cancellation.”
A study of TikTok memes and opinions indicates a clear bias towards Depp, despite the ex-spouses both claiming to be victims of domestic violence, and Heard aligning his experience with the #MeToo movement.
“What’s coming out on social media, on Instagram and TikTok, is quite heinous because these are serious allegations of abuse coming from both sides,” said Alex McCready, reputation and privacy manager at Vardags law. At the same time, McCready acknowledges, “the public relations strategy around a case can be just as important.”
The #JusticeforJohnnyDepp TikTok tag has over 10 billion views – more than the #AmberHeard (8.4 billion) and #JusticeforAmberHeard (37.2 million) tags. When Heard testified on May 4, 587,285 people were watching the Law & Crime live stream.
But the case is complex for other reasons: Depp’s lawsuit was only allowed to proceed on the doctrine of defamation by implication – Depp was not named in the article by Heard ACLU, nor did he reiterate any of the abuse allegations. Instead, Heard wrote that she “felt the full force of our culture’s anger for women speaking out.”
The doctrine holds that seemingly neutral and accurate statements can still make a defamatory insinuation. The jury of 11 – with seven who will be called upon to deliberate, and four alternates – will be faced with teasing this after May 27, when closing arguments are presented.
But they may also face other challenges. During jury selection, Deadline reported, a prospective juror said he texted his wife to be called.
“Amber is psychotic. If a man says a woman beat him, they never believe it,” came a response. Asked by Heard’s lawyers if he could still be impartial, the man replied that he could. “She tends to exaggerate.” When asked if his wife would be angry if he sided with Depp, he replied, “She gets mad at me all the time.”
It sounds weird. But then the whole affair often felt like extreme exercise.