Amber Heard didn’t entirely win over the jury in the defamation case brought by her ex-husband, Johnny Depp, because the panel most likely determined that she lacks credibility, some legal experts said.
The suit centered on an op-ed Heard published in The Washington Post in 2018. In the piece, which doesn’t mention Depp by name, Heard said she had become a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp’s attorneys said it indirectly referred to allegations she made against him during their 2016 divorce.
Depp was awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Fairfax County Circuit Judge Penney Azcarate reduced the punitive damages to Depp to $350,000, the state’s statutory cap, or legal limit, making his total damages $10.4 million.
Heard, who had countersued, was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages but $0 in punitive damages. She plans to appeal.
Some experts, such as NBC News and MSNBC legal analyst Danny Cevallos, said the jury got the verdict wrong, suggesting that neither party should have been at fault when the trial concluded.
“The jury should have instead held neither side liable in Depp’s $50 million suit against Heard and Heard’s $100 million countersuit,” Cevallos wrote in an opinion piece, adding that there “was a lot of evidence in this case” to prove why. “In other words, no one should have won; everyone should have lost.”
In interviews Wednesday, three other legal experts said Depp’s victory was especially surprising, considering he lost a libel case in the United Kingdom two years ago.
Depp sued the parent company that owns The Sun and the newspaper’s executive editor for calling him a “wife beater” in 2018. Justice Andrew Nicol ruled against Depp in 2020, saying the British tabloid had presented substantial evidence to show that Depp was violent against Heard on at least 12 of 14 occasions.
But the seven-person jury in Fairfax County, Virginia, “did not find Amber Heard credible at all,” said Limor Mojdehiazad, a family law litigator in Los Angeles who updates her more than 447,000 TikTok followers about the trial.
“For a jury to ever find actual malice and defamation in a case like this, it really has to be they didn’t find Amber Heard credible and they stopped listening to her case,” Mojdehiazad said.
The jury, which began deliberations Friday, came to its decision after about 13 hours over three days. The high-profile trial was broadcast across the country and drew numerous headlines.
Legal experts who spoke to NBC News, including Mojdehiazad, said there are myriad reasons the jury might have found Heard less credible, including how she delivered her testimony and the disparity in quality between the legal teams Heard and Depp hired.
Factors like Heard’s and Depp’s body language and the length of the trial itself could also have played roles in the outcome, Mojdehiazad said.
Juries are given wide latitude to determine the credibility of witnesses and that can include not only what a person says, but how they say it.
-Halim Dhanidina, criminal defense attorney and retired judge
Jurors, who weren’t sequestered, also could have been exposed to content related to the case on social media, said Halim Dhanidina, a criminal defense attorney and retired judge.
“Juries are given wide latitude to determine the credibility of witnesses, and that can include not only what a person says but how they say it,” Dhanidina said. “And the jury had a lot of time to evaluate Amber Heard and her testimony.”
Depp set up his case well, some say
Asked what could have most tarnished Heard’s credibility on the stand, Mojdehiazad said Depp, who testified ahead of Heard, set up his case “really well.”
“The evidence that it took Johnny Depp to get here, it took a six-week trial. … Not many people can afford to put their cases on like that,” she said. “Johnny had a unique case. He’s a unique person.”
Depp explained his side of their relationship well and had strong witnesses, who were able to poke holes in Heard’s narrative before she ever spoke a word in the courtroom, experts said.
Shannon Curry, the clinical psychologist who testified on Depp’s behalf, helped paint Heard as an exaggerator, Mojdehiazad said.
Curry, who spent 12 hours with Heard, diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder. She argued that Dawn Hughes, a clinical psychologist whom Heard’s legal team had called to the stand, didn’t administer the proper testing to arrive at her diagnosis that Heard had post-traumatic stress disorder.
Depp’s team “had Dr. Curry tell us exactly what to expect of Amber’s personality,” Mojdehiazad said. “And Dr. Curry was a fan favorite.”
Brett Turnbull, an attorney, also said audio that was played in the courtroom might have damaged Heard’s credibility.
Depp’s attorney played audio in which Heard tells Depp he should tell the world that he was a domestic abuse victim and that it was a “fair fight.” In another audio clip, Heard tells Depp she “was hitting” him but didn’t “punch” him as he claimed.
Heard “was basically trying to use different words to characterize the alleged abuse by Depp, which was pretty misleading, deceptive and not a good character builder for her,” Turnbull said.
Dhanidina said Depp’s legal team also appeared to be more organized and provided stronger evidence and more credible witnesses. In such a high-profile case, the legal team’s prowess matters, he said.
Heard’s makeup explanation could have raised flags
Inconsistencies in the case, some of which were brought on by her own legal team, could have also hurt Heard’s credibility, experts said.
Dhanidina pointed to suggestions by Heard’s attorneys that she used a certain makeup kit that wasn’t actually available during her relationship with Depp to hide bruises.
In opening statements, Heard’s attorney had held up a Milani Cosmetics color-correcting palette, saying Heard used it to help hide bruising while she was being abused by her former husband.
Milani Cosmetics rebutted that statement online, saying its Conceal + Perfect All-in-One Correcting Kit wasn’t released until December 2017 — more than a year after Heard filed for a temporary restraining order. Depp supporters online used the issue to allege that Heard was lying about being abused.
Heard later clarified what makeup products she used while she was on the stand. She told the court she used to refer to the makeup as her “bruise kit,” using a theater makeup kit to hide her injuries.
But moments like that could have raised flags in the minds of the jurors, Dhanidina said.
What the future could hold for similar cases
Some legal experts feared the jury’s verdict could set a dangerous precedent for domestic violence survivors.
Heard, who met Depp on the set of the film “The Rum Diary” in 2011 and married him in 2015, testified about several incidents of alleged physical abuse before and during their marriage, saying his violent episodes were usually caused by some combination of alcohol, drugs or jealousy. Depp denies ever having been violent with Heard or any other woman.
She said the first act of physical violence occurred in 2013, saying he slapped her three times one day after she laughed at one of his tattoos. “I will never forget it,” Heard said. “It changed my life.”
Heard alleged other incidents of physical violence, describing occasions when, she said, Depp slapped her, threw her to the ground, grabbed her by the hair, pushed her against a wall, head-butted her and threw objects at her, including drinking glasses and a cellphone.
Heard’s lawyers introduced evidence they said backed up her claims, including cellphone photos of Heard with bruises on her face, texts Depp sent using violent language and an audio recording of Heard apparently pleading with him to put down a knife. Depp’s lawyers, without providing evidence, said the images had been doctored.
On cross-examination, Depp’s lawyers pressed Heard about why she didn’t have medical records to substantiate the allegation of assault.
Jennifer Becker, the legal director and senior attorney for the National Judicial Education Program at Legal Momentum, a legal defense and education fund for women, said the verdict could prevent domestic violence survivors from speaking out against their abusers.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been an explosion of “retaliatory lawsuits specifically designed to intimidate and silence survivors,” Becker said.
Experts were mixed about whether the average person could expect an outcome like the Depp-Heard verdict. Turnbull said that while it’s a “very unique case,” juries could return similar verdicts should similar cases be brought again.
“The world is lived in the public domain, certainly more than ever,” he said. “It’s clear to me, and this is an opinion, that Johnny Depp used this trial as an opportunity to rebuild his public image.”
He added that he hopes the court system isn’t used “as a puppet” for image rehabilitation.