- A juror said Amber Heard was not credible on the witness stand.
- Trauma experts told Insider that a survivor’s feelings on the witness stand are not a sign that they are lying.
- How trauma survivors present themselves while recounting their experiences can vary widely, they said.
At the end of each trial, juries across America are tasked with evaluating the credibility of each witness based on their testimony and other evidence in the case.
After the verdict in the defamation case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – which kept the nation in suspense for more than six weeks – a juror revealed the female actress lost the case over her behavior on the witness stand and her “crocodile tears”. when allegations of domestic violence were not “credible”.
However, trauma experts warn against relying solely on how a witness expresses themselves during testimony to assess their credibility. Like soldiers, victims of sexual or domestic abuse may not appear as expected when sharing their trauma, they said.
Some survivors might respond to the sharing of their experiences and appear scared, excited, or distressed, but then quickly “keel over” as their bodies try to calm the excitement, Dr. Kate Porterfield, a clinical psychologist at the Bellevue Hospital Program for New York City torture survivors, told Insider.
“It can then make the person seem flat, distant, and disconnected,” said Porterfield, who works with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. “All of this is difficult for a jury to comprehend because it seems counterintuitive that a person could look stunned or maybe even bored, or that a person would have trouble remembering details of something horrible they suffered.”
Understand trauma and be able to empathize
Depp filed a defamation lawsuit against Heard in response to an op-ed she wrote for the Washington Post describing her experience of domestic violence. Depp’s name was not mentioned, but the article was widely interpreted as being about him. According to Depp’s $50 million lawsuit, Heard fabricated an incident in which she accused Depp of hitting her and actually verbally and physically assaulted him on numerous occasions.
Heard denied the allegations and is suing her for $100 million, arguing that Depp defamed her through testimonies from his attorney Adam Waldman, who called Heard’s allegations of abuse by Depp a “hoax.” She also testified that Depp physically hit her during their relationship, which Depp denied.
The jury’s decision, after nearly three days of deliberations, resulted in both being held liable, with Depp being awarded more than $10 million in damages and Heard being awarded $2 million. Depp is understood to have won the case as he owed less in damages.
Speaking to Good Morning America days after the sentencing, the unnamed male juror said Depp appeared more sincere when standing.
“Many on the jury found what he said to be more credible at the end of the day,” said the juror in an interview. “He just seemed a little more real in terms of how he responded to questions. His emotional state was very stable throughout.”
context is important
dr Jim Hopper, a clinical psychologist and nationally recognized expert on psychological trauma, said it’s only natural for people to make judgments about someone based on how they express their feelings.
“You’re only human, so it’s not your fault,” said Hopper, an adjunct professor at Harvard Medical School. “The question is what knowledge base do you have? … If it’s someone who has been traumatized, are you able to empathize with someone who might be expressing that trauma in a variety of ways?”
Hopper conducts trauma processing training for police groups on best practices in dealing with victims of sexual violence.
To help officials better identify with these survivors, Hopper said he draws parallels between attack survivors and soldiers.
“When police officers and soldiers talk about their military experiences, they don’t always express a lot of emotion and they might not even want to talk about it with people who haven’t been there and don’t understand it,” he said. “People can experience and express all kinds of different emotions, and that can be very unique to the individual, and it can be unique to the context.”
In this case, for example, the trial took place in a courtroom filled with Johnny Depp supporters, Hopper said.
“The courtroom was filled with Johnny Depp fans constantly showing massive hostility toward Amber Heard and all of her witnesses,” Hopper said. “So it’s not just about, was a person really traumatized and what would that look like? But also what it’s like to remember your trauma in public while a bunch of hostile people stare at you and glare at you all the time?”
Effects on the real world
The Depp-Heard case is unusual in that it was a high-profile libel trial with millions watching – and both parties are professional actors.
But survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other forms of trauma are witnesses in criminal and civil trials every day, and psychology experts believe it’s important to educate the public and juries about how the brain works under attack to avoid harmful misconceptions to avoid.
“I’ve had a couple of my clients who were pretty triggered … who were pretty upset at how they saw Amber being treated,” Porter said. “Some of my fellow therapists said their clients were having a really hard time based on what they saw when they were watching and then what they secondarily read and heard on the media and on social media.”
On one day of testimony, Heard sobbed uncontrollably in the stands as she detailed how Depp penetrated her with an alcohol bottle during a fight in Australia in March 2015. On social media, Depp fans took apart her behavior in the stands – turning her crying face into a meme.
Heard tearfully testified that she received hundreds, if not thousands, of death threats every day during the trial. She said the procedure and the humiliation it brought made her relive the trauma caused by Depp.
Her attorneys in the case said in closing arguments that the jury should view a guilty verdict against Heard as a message to “every victim of domestic violence, everywhere.”
“The judgment here against Amber sends a message that no matter what you do, you always have to do more as a victim of abuse,” said attorney Benjamin Rottenborn. Depp’s lawyers asked that the comments be removed from the record.
Julie Rendelman, a former Brooklyn homicide prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney and legal analyst, told Insider that when she works as a prosecutor, it’s always “disheartening” to ask a victim to testify.
“You have to go through quite a lot, especially cross-examination. If you’re prepared and understand the importance of telling the truth, then you hope the jury will make the right decision,” Rendelman said. “It’s always a difficult decision (for the victim) because you’re acknowledging that you’re being questioned about your credibility — as it should be because that’s what a jury trial is all about.”
Record all evidence
Rendelman agreed that everyone reacts differently when testifying, and judging credibility solely by how a witness comes across may not be helpful, but said that shouldn’t be brushed aside entirely.
The jury did nothing wrong in responding to Heard’s conduct in court and it is their job to assess their credibility, she said.
“When I tell someone bad news, I actually giggle a little, don’t I? Because I get nervous,” Rendelman said. “Everyone has a different reaction and so it’s always nerve-wracking to think that a jury would decide something based solely on my emotions or someone else’s, but it should at least be a factor that they have to consider when they’re over.” decide a person’s credibility.”
At that trial, the jury had more to judge Heard than just her conduct on the witness stand, Rendelman said.
The unnamed juror said in his interview that the jury was also unsettled by Heard’s apparent lie, such as donating her $7 million divorce settlement to the American Civil Liberties Union and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Although Heard previously said she donated the settlement, she testified that she did not complete her donations.
“It wasn’t just that, as they saw it, she had ‘crocodile tears,'” Rendalman said. “It was that she had that feeling, or lack thereof, coupled with serious questions about her credibility when she testified.”
That report included trial coverage by insider reporters Ashley Collman and Jacob Shamsian.