After a week-long hiatus, the Johnny Depp libel trial against Amber Heard resumes today – with the actor’s legal team set to begin their questioning of his ex-wife over her allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
The hearing is taking place in Fairfax, Va., before jurors, who have now heard four weeks of testimony from family, friends, doctors, expert witnesses and past and present staff from both Depp and Heardas well as the former couple themselves.
Depp’s attorneys have closed their case after completing questioning of his witnesses, with Heard’s witnesses now set to give their side of the story for the remaining two weeks of the trial.
After that, it will be up to the jury to decide. Who are they going to believe?
In the first four weeks, they heard shocking reports about the former couple’s arguments. As well as the alleged physical abuse, the complaints against Depp included an accusation that he held his dog out of a moving car window and painted messages in blood on the wall of a house in Australia. after sadly cutting his finger. He in turn accused Heard of defecating in bed and faking bleeding with fingernail polish.
“Both parties have done a fair job of exposing each other’s less than polished moments,” defamation and slander expert Kimberly Lau, a partner at New York law firm Warshaw Burstein, told Sky News. “What will make this trial particularly difficult for a jury is the fact that both sides are trained actors whose job it is to make the audience believe that they are, in fact, the role they are playing.
“Witness testimony and documentary evidence will be even more essential for the jury to determine who is really telling the truth and who may simply play a role.”
Depp is suing Heard for defamation over an article he published in The Washington Post in December 2018, which his lawyers claim falsely implies he physically and sexually assaulted her – even though he doesn’t mention her name.
He strenuously denies the abuse allegations and throughout the trial told the court he was “obsessed with the truthand accused Heard of being the violent one during their relationship.
This lawsuit in the United States comes after the former star of Pirates of the Caribbean lost a similar defamation case in the UKwhich he brought against The Sun’s publishers, News Group Newspapers (NGN), for publishing an article calling him a “wife-drummer” in the headline.
Following a 16-day trial in July 2020, a judge found the content of the article to be “substantially true” and Depp was later denied leave to appeal the decision to the Court call.
But this case in America is being heard by a jury, rather than just a judge.
“Juries have an inherent unpredictability
“Having a jury of several people – in this case, seven – makes a big difference in the deliberation process,” says Ms. Lau.
“One’s opinion is not enough; all seven must agree. And although judges, unlike juries, already have an understanding of the law, the jury is made up of many people whose experiences of life can impact how they view and weigh the evidence at trial.”
As well as being held before a jury, proceedings are broadcast worldwide live from the court – unlike in the UK, cameras are allowed in courtrooms in the US.
Matthew Dando, partner and media law expert at London firm Wiggin, says that while the televised hearings will not affect the outcome of the trial, they will have an effect on media coverage and public opinion.
“It will inevitably mean that lawyers are not just playing people in the courtroom, but directly on TV… they are playing directly to the public,” he told the PA news agency. “So it affects the dynamics of the trial.”
“Juries have an inherent unpredictability, and that’s why if this was heard again by a judge alone, you would probably expect it to play out in the same way as the UK case,” says Alex Wade, also partner at Wiggin. “But as Matt says, the various attorneys in the United States will play in front of the jury.”
As was the case in the UK, this case is a civil trial, not a criminal one; if Depp loses, it doesn’t mean he’s been convicted of a crime.
But as a public figure, the actor has a higher burden of proof for his defamation claims than an individual, Ms Lau says. The onus is on her to prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that Heard’s statements in her Washington Post column “were made with actual malice – meaning she either knew the statement was false or that she recklessly omitted to verify the assertion”.
“It’s hard to undo a bell”
If Depp wins, the jury will determine damages. He sued for $50 million, but jurors may decide there is a basis to award less or more. Punitive damages could also be imposed in addition to compensatory damages.
Heard is filing a countersuit for $100million – as she is 20 years younger, the potential damage to her career is longer than that of Depp, according to Ms Lau – and the same legal charges and standards apply to her .
Depp told the trial that regardless of the outcome, he lost. “The second the allegations were made against me…and turned into media fodder…then I lost,” he told jurors as he took the stand for the first time in april.
The article that started the whole affair
Why are Depp and Heard in court?
“I lost because it’s not something anyone is going to put on you for a short time. I’ll live with that for the rest of my life.”
“It will be difficult for Depp to completely salvage his career even if he wins at trial,” Ms Lau said. “The charges may be enough for some to question the truth, regardless of the outcome of the trial. It’s hard to ring the alarm bells.”
The trial, which is scheduled to last until the end of May, continues at the Fairfax County Courthouse.