Flat White

Depp v. Heard: trials and tribulations

10 May 2022

12:00 PM

10 May 2022

12:00 PM

If you are interested in litigation and court cases, your latest obsession is the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial…

Years in the making, the trial has spanned a month with countless depositions and testimonies from various players, lawyering of different calibres from both sides, and a whole lot of absurd moments.

Given we are now at the midway point and on a ten-day break due to the obligations of Judge Penny Azcarate (who will be away from court attending a judicial conference for the week), I thought it pertinent to recap what we have seen thus far, the important points to consider before the trial resumes, and what we can expect to see in the remaining weeks.

First, a brief reminder of how we got here. In 2018, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Amber Heard wrote an op-ed published in the Washington Post about domestic violence, including that which she had allegedly suffered. Although she did not specifically name anyone when detailing the abuse, it was alleged by her ex-husband Johnny Depp that the claims were about him. Depp brought a lawsuit against her, suing for defamation and alleging the op-ed cost him employment. 

This brings us to the defamation trial being heard in a Virginian court (where the article was published) in front of a judge and jury of seven. The jury will ultimately decide whether Depp is successful in his lawsuit as the rejection of a motion to dismiss the case launched by Heard’s legal team was struck down by the judge in a brutal fashion.

So far, Depp’s team has dominated the proceedings. The burden of proof lies on the plaintiff, so they are typically the first to make their case. Depp’s legal team has proven to be a cohesive and well-oiled unit thus far. Of the team from major international law firm Brown Rudnick, Ben Chew, and Camille Vasquez have stood out in their roles. Chew has previously represented Depp in the two breaches of fiduciary duty cases, which he won. 

Depp’s team has called a multitude of witnesses including housekeepers, bodyguards, accountants, expert witnesses, and Depp himself. Of those who have testified from Depp’s side, there have been several standouts. 

On the other side, Heard’s team also consists of several lawyers. Two have become prominent in the case – Elaine Bredehoft and Benjamin Rottenborn. Although we have only heard from two witnesses from Amber Heard’s side, namely expert witness Dr Dawn Hughes and Ms. Heard herself, their testimonies have left the door open for Depp’s team to start poking holes and discrediting them.

One of the most impressive testimonies so far has come from psychologist Dr Shannon Curry, one of Depp’s expert witnesses, who provided their opinion on the alleged mental state of Amber Heard, telling the court that she believed Ms. Heard has Borderline Personality Disorder and Histrionic Personality Disorder. She was calm and collected on the stand, responding well to questions from Depp’s team and withstanding the inevitable attempts to discredit her from Bredehoft. It was Bredehoft’s cross-examination of Dr Curry which spawned one of the most bizarre moments from the trial when the lawyer began asking the psychologist about muffins she had brought to her meeting with Ms. Heard. 

As was expected, Heard’s team put questions to their expert, Dr Hughes, to enable her to provide an alternative expert opinion at odds with Dr Curry’s and attempt to discredit her analysis. Dr Hughes alleged that Amber had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the domestic violence she had allegedly endured from Depp. However, Dr Hughes was not as composed as her counterpart, instead appearing frustrated when objections were made and when Bredehoft mistakenly addressed her as Dr Curry on two occasions. It is almost certain that Depp’s team will call on Dr Curry again at recall to discredit Dr Hughes’ testimony.

Another significant testimony was that of Johnny Depp’s agent, Jack Whigham. It went to the central issue of the case, that being Depp’s inability to get work after the op-ed was published. It became apparent that his testimony was critical when Heard’s lawyers kept objecting, desperate to prevent him from providing a huge blow. Then he dropped the bomb, telling the court that after the op-ed was published it was impossible to get Johnny a studio film and that even a ‘$22.5 million verbal deal’ that he had secured with Disney for a sixth Pirates of the Caribbean film was trashed following the op-ed’s publication. 

Forensic accountant Mike Spindler spoke further to the matter, testifying he had analysed Depp’s earnings following the op-ed, stating, ‘I concluded that Mr Depp suffered lost earnings of approximately $40 million.’ Richard Marks, a Hollywood expert witness who specialises in making deals in the entertainment industry, testified that in the #MeToo era, studios and brands have been looking the other way from celebrities that are the subject of domestic violence claims. In his expert opinion, Heard’s op-ed got Hollywood’s attention because it appeared she was calling out the industry for continuing to work with her alleged abuser and thereby cost Depp employment opportunities. 

Depp’s testimony was raw and honest. He admitted to his faults of drug and alcohol abuse and spoke to the abuse he had suffered as a child, before testifying to the damage the op-ed had allegedly caused to his career and how he would never work with Disney again after they had practically found him guilty before even hearing his side of the story. He held his own under cross-examination from Rottenborn, who read a slew of tabloid headlines, asking Johnny if he had read them correctly after each one. He was clearly attempting to get under Depp’s skin and provoke a reaction, but it was to no avail.

Heard, who fired her PR team just days beforehand, took the stand on Wednesday, telling her own story of how Depp, who she refers to as ‘Johnny’ (Depp referred to her as ‘Ms. Heard’) allegedly abused her in numerous ways. She appeared upset at points throughout her testimony, however, an absurd moment came where it seemed that, after bringing a tissue to her face, she held the position for the cameras. Heard and Bredehoft, who was asking the questions, appeared to become frustrated when Depp’s lawyer Camille Vasquez objected consistently and strategically, winning the vast majority of the objections. Vasquez was clearly getting under Amber’s skin, which should make the cross interesting given she will be conducting it. 

What are the key takeaways, and what can we expect when the trial resumes?

It is clear to me and to numerous lawyers watching the case unfold that the evidence and testimony to this point supports Johnny Depp’s claims. It is evident that Depp has been financially impacted, but it remains to be seen if his team can convince the jury that not only was he falsely accused, but that the op-ed caused the damage.

On the other hand, Amber’s team has only just begun to make their case. Amber has made some very serious claims and woven a narrative that is now on Depp’s team to unravel on cross and Heard’s team to substantiate with their witnesses. So far, recordings have been played and photos displayed which are not all that compelling for Heard’s case. If they cannot put up sufficient witnesses, she will likely fail to deter a verdict in favour of her ex-husband. One interesting take with regard to this has come from Minnesota lawyer Nick Rekieta (I highly recommend watching his live streams of the trial), who observed that the witnesses Amber’s story revolves around are either indisposed or have since died. 

The other main takeaway is the competence of the lawyers. Depp’s team is solid. They appear to be working together well alongside their client. They are miles ahead of Heard’s lawyers, evident by the way in which they have posed questions, and the gaffes they have made, including Adam Nadelhaft’s objection to his own question.

Both sides have their supporters (it seems Johnny has far more support), yet there are some who still think this should be about believing women. The #MeToo era has clearly been toxic to accurate judgment, making out that men are always the bad guys. It is something we should keep in mind when examining this trial and the impact it will have on society.

From here, Depp’s team has time to prepare for cross on Amber. This cross-exam will be crucial given it will determine Heard’s credibility. Once it is complete, Heard’s team will call their remaining witnesses, and eventually rest their case. Depp’s team will then have time to recall certain witnesses to attempt to further discredit testimony from Ms. Heard’s side. And, finally, on May 27, closing arguments will occur, at the conclusion of which the jury will begin deliberations and we will finally get a result from what is sure to be one of most public trials of our time. 

The trial resumes on May 16. 

Joel Agius is an independent writer. If you would like to read more of his work, you can do so at JJ’s Outlook or check out his new podcast The Agius Hour.

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