Attorney Gabriel Sepulveda-Sanchez recently appeared on Law and Crime and talked about the Depp-Heard defamation trial. The jury reached their verdict on June 1st. While both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard were found guilty of defamation against each other, Depp got the bigger win. Read more and watch below to understand why this case turned out the way it did.
As Gabriel predicted in this episode of Law & Crime, it was no surprise that the defamation case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard involved losses for both. The jury granted Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages (reduced to $350,000 under Virginia law). They also awarded Heard $2 million in compensatory damages.
Still, comparing the two, Depp won by a large margin.
This was an important and complicated case, with issues of domestic abuse, intimate and sexual assault, First Amendment rights, and defamation. Let’s get into the verdict.
Defamation is a complex area of law because it comes up against First Amendment rights.
The First Amendment gives you the right to freedom of speech. But that freedom has limits. You could be sued for defamation if your speech harms another person, especially when the content of what you say is false. Even more so if you knowingly make false statements.
In this case, Depp argued that Heard’s op-ed cost him industry jobs and millions of dollars.
Defamation applies differently to private individuals versus public figures. The charge also varies by state. This case was decided under Virginia law, where public figures like Johnny Depp – an A-list Hollywood star with decades of box-office hits – must prove that defamation happened with actual malice. That means Depp had to convince a jury that Heard knowingly made false statements in a 2018 op-ed she published in the Washington Post.
One of the best ways to defend against accusations of defamation is to simply show that you’re telling the truth. To defend herself against Depp’s defamation lawsuit, Heard could prove the truth behind her statements that she “spoke up against sexual violence and faced our culture’s wrath,” and “became a public figure representing domestic abuse.”
As Gabriel mentions in this episode of Law & Crime, if Heard could prove that she was a victim of domestic abuse, Depp’s defamation lawsuit would have no leg to stand on.
An important point came down to makeup.
In court, Heard explained how she would use makeup to cover up bruises from assaults by Depp. Under cross-examination, Depp challenged those statements, saying there was testimony that Heard did not wear makeup on those days and had no bruises.
Ultimately, it came down to the jury to decide whether Depp or Heard’s testimony was more convincing. And it turned out, according to their verdict, that Heard was not convincing enough.
One big weakness in Heard’s case was the lack of strong evidence such as medical records or photos. Usually, the side with the strongest evidence wins. If Heard’s lawyer had this type of evidence but failed to present it properly to the court, that would be a serious legal fumble.
At one point, Heard testified that she gave “everything she had” for evidence to her lawyers, including medical records and photos allegedly taken of her injuries. However, those photos were not shown to the jury. Heard blamed her attorneys for leaving out this critical evidence. Unfortunately, this was a major oversight that she could not overcome.
When it comes to jury trials, so much of the decision-making comes down to how credible or trustworthy witnesses seem to the jurors. Cases involving intimate partner violence often fall into the conundrum of he-said-she-said, where there are only 2 witnesses to the events.
At this point, both sides must take care to present their version of events as the most credible and the most believable version. This can be very subjective, down to each individual juror. There are points in the trial where Heard and her lawyer could have handled her time on the witness stand to be more sympathetic or believable to the jurors.
It goes without saying that cases involving intimate partner violence must wrestle with troubling issues of gender bias. Good lawyers keep these gender issues in mind during the process of choosing which jurors to hear their case – a process called voir dire.
In this particular case, the jury was made up of 5 men and 2 women. It’s unclear, for example, if Heard’s detailed testimony about makeup would have as strong an effect on that group.
When picking a jury, you want to find people who are likely to hear the evidence your way and who would give your client a fair chance regardless of their gender. A good attorney will ask if potential jurors have personally ever experienced domestic abuse, as that might affect their ability to be impartial. In the end, the court wants a jury that will be fair to both sides.
Unclear jury instructions could have also played a part in this complex case.
In some jury cases, lawyers may have to create formal special jury instructions to help jurors understand the law and make a proper decision. But if the jury instructions aren’t written well, they could only add to a juror’s confusion instead of clarifying the issue.
According to the lawsuit, Johnny Depp sued Amber Heard for 3 specific statements made in the op-ed she published – not the entire op-ed itself. The statements are:
If you look at the op-ed as a whole, it’s more clear that the article is talking about Johnny Depp. But if you take just those statements on their own, they are less specific. She could be referring to other relationships she may have had. But according to their verdict, the jurors seem to have determined that the public knew and understood the article as referring to Depp.
Watch the Law and Crime segment for more insights into this case.