Jurors started their deliberations Friday in the civil libel trial between actors Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard, following six weeks of courtroom drama that peeled back the curtain on the stars’ troubled marriage.
Depp is suing Heard for $50 million in Virginia’s Fairfax County Circuit Court over a December 2018 op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post describing herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.”
Judge Penney Azcarate gave the jury its instructions Friday morning, ahead of the start of closing arguments from Depp and Heard’s attorneys. When the jury deliberates, it will have to focus not only on whether there was abuse but also whether Heard’s op-ed piece can be considered legally defamatory.
The article itself focuses mostly on policy questions of domestic violence, but Depp’s lawyer pointed to two passages in the article, as well as an online headline that they say defamed Depp, even though the article never mentioned his name.
“She didn’t mention his name. She didn’t have to,” said Depp lawyer Benjamin Chew. “Everyone knew exactly who and what Ms. Heard was talking about.”
In the first passage, Heard writes that “two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath.” Depp’s lawyers call it a clear reference to Depp, given that Heard publicly accused Depp of domestic violence in 2016 – two years before she wrote the article.
In a second passage she states “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”
The online headline reads “Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath.”
Heard “ruined his life by falsely telling the world she was a survivor of domestic abuse at the hands of Mr. Depp,” lawyer Camille Vasquez told the jury in closing arguments.
Heard’s lawyers argue Heard can’t be held liable for the headline because she didn’t write it, and that the two passages in the article are not about the abuse allegations themselves but how Heard’s life changed after she made them.
Heard filed a $100 million counterclaim against Depp after his lawyer called her allegations a hoax. Though the counterclaim has received less attention at the trial, Heard lawyer Elaine Bredehoft said it provides an avenue for the jury to compensate Heard for the abuse Depp has inflicted on her by orchestrating a smear campaign against her.
“We’re asking you to finally hold this man responsible,” she told the jury. “He has never accepted responsibility for anything in his life.”
Depp says he never struck Heard and that she concocted the abuse allegations to gain an advantage in divorce proceedings. He has said he was often physically attacked by Heard.
Jurors have seen multiple photos of Heard with marks and bruises on her face, but some photos show only mild redness, and others appear to show more severe bruising.
Vasquez accused Heard of doctoring the photos and said evidence that Heard has embellished some of her injuries is proof that all her claims of abuse are unfounded.
“You either believe all of it, or none of it,” she said. “Either she is a victim of ugly, horrible abuse, or she is a woman who is willing to say absolutely anything.”
In Heard’s closing, attorney J. Benjamin Rottenborn said the nitpicking over Heard’s evidence of abuse ignores the fact there’s overwhelming evidence on her behalf and sends a dangerous message to domestic-violence victims.
“If you didn’t take pictures, it didn’t happen,” Rottenborn said. “If you did take pictures, they’re fake. If you didn’t tell your friends, they’re lying. If you did tell your friends, they’re part of the hoax.”
And he rejected Vasquez’s suggestion that if the jury thinks Heard might be embellishing on a single act of abuse that they have to disregard everything she says. He said Depp’s libel claim must fail if Heard suffered even a single incident of abuse.
“They’re trying to trick you into thinking Amber has to be perfect to win,” Rottenborn said.
Rottenborn told jurors that even if they tend to believe Depp’s claim that he never abused Heard, he still can’t win his case because Heard has a First Amendment right to weigh in on matters of public debate.
Depp is hoping the six-week trial will help restore his reputation, though it has turned into a spectacle of a vicious marriage, with broadcast cameras in the courtroom capturing every twist to an increasingly rapt audience as fans weighed in on social media and lined up overnight for coveted courtroom seats.