The jury began deliberations on Friday IIn the civil libel trial between actors Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard after six weeks of court drama that drew back the curtain on the stars’ troubled marriage.
Depp is suing Heard in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia for $50 million over a December 2018 comment she wrote in the Washington Post describing herself as “a public figure who advocates domestic violence.” described.
Judge Penney Azcarate gave her instructions to the jury Friday morning before the closing arguments of Depp and Heard’s attorneys began. When deliberating, the jury must focus not only on whether abuse has occurred, but also whether Heard’s comment can be considered legally defamatory.
The article itself focuses mostly on political issues surrounding domestic violence, but Depp’s attorney pointed to two passages in the article, as well as an online headline stating that Depp was defamed, even though the article never mentioned his name.
“She didn’t mention his name. She didn’t have to,” said Depp attorney 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 violence and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath.” Depp’s lawyers call it a clear reference to Depp, as Heard publicly accused Depp of domestic violence in 2016 – two years before she wrote the article.
In a second passage, she says, “I’ve had the rare vantage point of seeing in real time how institutions are protecting men accused of abuse.”
The online headline reads, “Amber Heard: I Speak Out Against Sexual Violence — and Faced the Wrath of Our Culture.”
Heard “ruined his life by falsely telling the world she was a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of Mr. Depp,” attorney Camille Vasquez told the jury in closing arguments.
Heard’s attorneys argue that Heard cannot be held liable for the headline because she did not write it, and that the two passages in the article are not about the abuse allegations themselves, but about how Heard’s life has changed, after raising them.
Heard filed a $100 million counterclaim against Depp after his attorney called their allegations a hoax. Though the counterclaim received less attention at trial, Heard’s attorney, Elaine Bredehoft, said it offers the jury a way to compensate Heard for the abuse Depp inflicted on her by orchestrating a smear campaign against her.
“We ask that you finally hold this man accountable,” she told the jury. “He never took responsibility for anything in his life.”
Depp says he never hit Heard and that she made up the abuse allegations to gain an advantage in the divorce proceedings. He has said that he was often physically assaulted by Heard.
The jury saw several photos of Heard with spots and bruises on his face, but some photos show only mild redness and others appear to show more severe bruising.
Vasquez accused Heard of manipulating the photos and said evidence that Heard embellished some of her injuries was proof that all of her allegations of abuse were unfounded.
“You either believe all of it or none of it,” she said. “Either she’s a victim of ugly, horrific abuse, or she’s a woman who is willing to say absolutely anything.”
In Heard’s closing remarks, attorney J. Benjamin Rottenborn said the sophistry about Heard’s evidence of abuse ignores the fact that there is overwhelming evidence supporting it and sends a dangerous message to victims of domestic violence.
“If you didn’t take pictures, it didn’t happen,” Rottenborn said. “If you took photos, they are fake. If you haven’t told your friends, they are lying. If you told your friends, they are part of the scam.”
And he dismissed Vasquez’s suggestion that if the jury believes Heard could embellish a single act of abuse, they must ignore everything she says. He said Depp’s defamation lawsuit must fail if Heard suffered even a single incident of abuse.
“They’re trying to get you to believe that Amber has to be perfect to win,” Rottenborn said.
Rottenborn told jurors that even if they are inclined to believe Depp’s claim that he never abused Heard, he still cannot win his case because Heard has a First Amendment right to interfere in matters of public debate.
Depp hopes the six-week trial will help restore his reputation, though it has escalated into a spectacle of a malign marriage, with courtroom TV cameras capturing every twist for an increasingly rapturous audience, while fans on social media weigh in and weigh in lined up overnight for coveted courtroom seats.