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Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp: Defamation Case Heads to Jury

A dynamic that may decide the fate of the defamation duel between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard emerged on Friday during closing arguments: Depp played up evidence that he argues vindicates him of abuse, while Heard played up standards of law that she argues must lead the jury to find in her favor.

Over six weeks of trial, dozens of witnesses and exhibits have been shown to the jury tasked with determining whether the actors defamed each other through over three years of public mudslinging in the press. They will navigate formulaic principles of defamation law to reach a verdict.

Depp’s lawyers during closing remarks, keeping in line with their trial strategy, portrayed Heard as the abuser in the former couple’s relationship and Depp as a pacifist who tried to hide at the sign of an argument.

“There is an abuser in this courtroom, but it is not Mr. Depp,” said Camille Vasquez, representing the Pirates actor. “And there is a victim of domestic abuse in this courtroom, but it is not Ms. Heard.”

Ben Rottenborn, representing Heard, urged the jury to disregard what he characterized as a red herring in Depp’s accusations. It does not matter if Heard abused him, he argued.

“If Amber was abused by Mr. Depp even one time, then she wins,” Rottenborn said. “We’re not just talking about physical abuse. We’re talking about emotional abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse.”

Eleven jurors, six men and three women with two alternates, considered closing arguments in the trial in Fairfax County, Virginia, centering on a December 2018 op-ed Heard published in The Washington Post in which she called herself a domestic abuse survivor. Although the column didn’t mention him by name, Depp alleged she defamed him because claims in the piece corresponded with the time the pair were married. After Depp sued for $50 million, Heard shot back with a $100 million counterclaim arguing her ex-husband had coordinated a campaign aimed at smearing her.

While the central question in the trial is whether Depp abused Heard, the allegedly defamatory statements in Heard’s column are: 1. “I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath.”; 2. “Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”; 3. “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

Delivering closing remarks for Depp’s case, Vasquez played audio recordings of Heard admitting to hitting her ex-husband and of her encouraging Depp to “tell the world” and “see what a jury and judge thinks” of his claim that she abused him as well as testimony from third-party witnesses undercutting her account of injuries that she allegedly sustained from Depp.

“Who’s really the one alleging a hoax here?” Vasquez asked. “Who wants you to believe that everyone else is lying — committing perjury.”

Through the course of the trial, one story in particular has been subject to intense scrutiny: a fight in Australia in 2015 during which Depp’s finger was severed. In Depp’s version of events, his finger was injured when Heard threw a vodka bottle at him. In Heard’s telling, Depp smashed his own finger in a drug-and-alcohol-fueled stupor before he raped her with a bottle.

Vasquez looked to undermine Heard’s account of the fight, emphasizing that she didn’t photograph of any of her alleged injuries but took the time to document Depp writing on the walls of the house, which he said he did amid a nervous breakdown. Even more than that, Vasquez pointed out that none of the witnesses who have testified about the incident, including Depp’s security personnel and medical professionals, corroborated Heard’s claim that she suffered numerous injuries from the assault.

“Ms. Heard spun a story of horror: a three day ordeal by a drug-fueled Mr. Depp violently assaulting her, cutting his own finger off, dragging her through glass, and bending her back over a counter and raping her with a whiskey bottle,” Vasquez said. “She claimed she had bruises on her face, cuts all over arms and feet, and was bleeding from vagina from the sexual assault. And what did Ms. Heard say she did? She said she went upstairs, took sleeping pills, and went to sleep. The next morning she took pictures of the mirrors her husband had written on in paint. She took no pictures of herself, her alleged injuries or the property damage she testified to in this courtroom.”

On rebuttal, Rottenborn told jurors that whether Heard cut Depp’s finger off is “irrelevant to your deliberations here.”

“Amber could’ve chopped it off with an axe, and it has nothing to do with whether Mr. Depp abused her,” Rottenborn said.

Rottenborn spent much of his closing remarks clarifying jury instructions on the high standard for Depp to prevail on his defamation claims.

Heard has maintained that the op-ed was never about Depp and that she didn’t even write the piece. ACLU general counsel Terence Dougherty, corroborating the claim, testified that the organization extensively reworked the column to avoid a defamation suit and that Heard didn’t push to include details of her marriage with Depp.

“Just because people might read the article and remember that Ms. Heard used to be married to Johnny Depp, and she accused him of abuse, that doesn’t mean she designed and intended any defamatory implications in writing about herself,” Rottenborn said.

There was also extensive discussion of whether Heard meets the standard for republication under defamation law.

One of the legal issues the jury will decide is whether Heard republished the op-ed by retweeting the piece. She will only be found liable if it’s found that she sufficiently retransmitted or redistributed the content with the goal of reaching a new audience. Merely linking the hyperlink does not amount to republication.

Rottenborn argued that Heard did not republish the piece because “there was no content added to the article” in her tweet. For her to be liable, she would have had to detail the abuse she suffered at the hands of Depp, he said.

The allegedly defamatory statements that make up Heard’s counterclaims concern accusations from Adam Waldman — one of Depp’s lawyers, who was thrown off the case after leaking information covered by a protective order to the press — that Heard’s abuse claims were a hoax. In one statement to The Daily Mail cited in the countersuit, Waldman said, “We have reached the beginning of the end of Ms. Heard’s abuse hoax against Johnny Depp.” He said in another that Heard “set Mr. Depp up by calling the cops,” referencing a visit from law enforcement to the couple’s house, after which Heard refused to press charges against Depp for domestic abuse.

Elaine Bredehoft, also representing Heard, pointed to testimony from friends of Heard who took the stand to challenge Waldman’s account of the incident.

“They’re trying to suggest she’s manufacturing evidence with her friends to try to frame Mr. Depp,” Bredehoft said. “Nothing can be farther from the truth on that one. She did not want the police to press charges.”

The jury will decide whether Waldman was acting on Depp’s behalf when he made the allegedly defamatory statements. Depp has testified that he only saw Waldman’s comments when Heard countersued him.

For either to prevail, they must prove that the other made the allegedly defamatory statements with actual malice, or the knowledge that they knew the claims were lies or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

Lawyers on both sides also spoke to the larger impact of the trial, which was put in motion at the height of the #MeToo movement. Depp’s side argued that Heard, an ambassador for the ACLU on women’s rights, betrayed the cause to boost her career.

“Nobody has come out of the woodwork to say MeToo,” said Benjamin Chew, also representing Depp. “This is the unique and singular MeToo case where there’s not a single MeToo.”

Heard’s side, meanwhile, urged jurors to think about the ramifications of siding with Depp in the case.

“Think about the message that Mr. Depp and his attorneys are sending to Amber, and by extension to every victim of domestic abuse everywhere,” Rottenborn said. “If you didn’t take pictures it didn’t happen. If you did take pictures, they’re fake. If you didn’t tell your friends, they’re lying. And if you did tell your friends, they’re part of the hoax. If you didn’t seek medical attention, you weren’t injured. If you did seek medical attention, you’re crazy. If you do everything to help your spouse, the person that you love, to rid himself of the crushing drug and alcohol abuse that spins him into an abusive, rage filled monster, you’re a nag. And if you finally decide that enough is enough — that you had enough of the fear, enough of the pain, and you have to leave to save yourself — you’re a gold digger. That’s the message Md is asking you to send.”

Jury deliberations started after closing statements. They will resume on Tuesday if a verdict is not returned on Friday.

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