After a six-week trial, a civil jury in Virginia is deliberating defamation claims by Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard. The trial has featured lurid testimony with explicit details about the movie stars’ short and volatile marriage. But what is the case really about? And what will the jury need to decide?
Depp filed a $50 million defamation suit against Amber Heard, alleging that a 2018 op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post damaged his reputation and hurt his career. In the article, Heard described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp is not mentioned by name in the article, but his lawyers argued that it was clear she was referring to Depp, given that she had publicly accused him of domestic violence during their 2016 divorce proceedings. Heard’s lawyers said most of the article focuses on public policy on domestic violence and that she had a First Amendment right to weigh in on that subject. They also maintain that Depp did in fact abuse Heard.
During the trial, Heard has described more than a dozen specific instances when she says Depp abused her, including her allegation that he sexually assaulted her with a liquor bottle in an alcohol-fueled rage. Depp has denied any physical or sexual abuse, and says Heard concocted the claims to destroy his reputation. He’s also claimed that she physically attacked him on multiple occasions.
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The jury’s job
The seven-member jury must decide if two passages and the headline of the article are defamatory. The jury verdict form gives jurors instructions on how to determine that, including by asking them whether the statements were about Depp, were false and had a defamatory implication about him. Because Depp is a public figure, Heard can only be found guilty of libel if the jury decides that she acted with “actual malice,” meaning that she either knew what she wrote was false or that she acted with reckless disregard for the truth. Heard’s lawyers told the jury Depp’s libel claim must fail if Heard suffered even a single incident of abuse.