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‘The world is watching’: Depp-Heard jury faces a difficult task

There are complicated questions for jurors to consider when they resume deliberating on Tuesday morning. The trick, legal experts say, is to leave emotions out of it.

Amber Heard leaves after closing arguments in the defamation trial in Fairfax, Va., on May 27. ( Michael Reynolds/EPA-EE/Shutterstock)
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After Johnny Depp left the Fairfax County Courthouse Friday afternoon, he went to England, where he was seen this weekend trading guitar licks with Jeff Beck. The jury in the trial between Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard deliberated for a couple of hours and then sent word that they would return Tuesday to continue trying to reach a verdict in the complicated, often unseemly dispute between the two movie stars.

Though the identities of the jurors will remain sealed for a year, given the high-profile nature of the case, several media outlets have reported the jury’s demographic makeup from inside the courtroom. It is not clear how the outlets have determined the jurors’ races or other details, other than simple observation. According to Court TV, the jury is composed of five men and two women, with another woman and man serving as alternates; they appear to range in age from their 20s to one who could be older than 60.

They arguably didn’t know much about the case before being selected — during jury selection, only about a dozen potential jurors claimed to have any knowledge of the contentious relationship between Depp and Heard — and the task before them is not a particularly easy one.

“One challenge that they are likely facing is staying focused on the case at hand without allowing all of their own lived experiences and biases to lead them to a snap judgment that is not supported by the testimony. The jury instructions are very concrete in helping jurors do that focusing as a legal matter, but this is a real challenge on a human level,” said Jamie R. Abrams, a University of Louisville law professor. “The gendered distribution of the jury makes that even more interesting.”

FAQ: What to know as the jury deliberates a verdict in the Depp-Heard trial

The jury will attempt to rule on two claims. Depp filed a $50 million defamation suit against Heard for publishing a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post, in which she referred to herself as a public figure representing domestic abuse. Though he isn’t named in the piece, he says it damaged his career.

For his claim, the jury is weighing seven questions, most notably whether Heard made or published three separate statements in the op-ed, including the headline; if they imply or insinuate anything about Depp; and if so, whether they were false and/or made with actual malice.

Jennifer Freyd, an expert in the psychology of sexual violence, discusses the impact of Amber Heard's testimony in Johnny Depp's defamation trial. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

The jury is also deciding on Heard’s $100 million counterclaim: That three statements made in the media by an attorney working for Depp, Adam Waldman, hurt her reputation and career by dismissing her allegations as false. For this, the jury has to decide six questions, including whether Waldman, while acting on Depp’s behalf, made the statements, and if they were false and/or made with actual malice.

“The jurors will decide this case on more than just the law,” said Jill Huntley Taylor, a legal analyst who owns Taylor Trial Consulting. “No matter how complicated the case is, jurors are going to simplify it to the point that they understand it.”

While Taylor believes the jurors will focus on the actual legal claims, they will probably (consciously or not) also partially make their ruling on whom they find both credible and likable. That’s even more probable considering that Heard’s team “turned a case about defamation into a case about abuse,” which might muddy the waters for the jury.

“The heart of this case could have been the op-ed, but it’s not,” Taylor said. It’s “whether there was abuse or no abuse.”

And, as Abrams noted, while they aren’t supposed to read about the case or be influenced in any way, they’re only human — and they probably know how much media attention the case has garnered, which might increase the pressure they feel to get it right. “While they’ve been prohibited from accessing social media and media coverage, the frenzy at the courthouse alone is enough for them to understand that the world is watching,” she said.

Complicating things further is how to determine actual damages, if the jury decides anyone is owed them. “In a libel case based on public speech like here, where the chief damages are emotional-distress damages and damages to professional reputation — which could lead to loss of unknown future movie roles, for instance — the damages are obviously hard to determine, and largely within the jury’s discretion.” said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.

Abrams also wonders if Friday’s closing arguments — in which both sides seemed “to be tapping into strands of ‘what’s at stake’ beyond this trial specifically” — may have confused the jury.

“While I am keenly focused on the harm that this case is doing in our legal and social systems as a scholar and professor, it doesn’t strike me as relevant or helpful for the lawyers to tap into that big-picture narrative with the jury after six weeks of tedious and exhausting testimony,” she said. “From those threads, I think we can see that these lawyers are speaking to the jury, but also to the public.”

She pointed to the plaintiff’s suggestion to the jury that Heard is “either a victim of truly horrific abuse or she is a woman who is willing to say absolutely anything.” What might make for a catchy media sound bite, she said, doesn’t necessarily sell a jury.

Many have argued the verdict itself doesn’t actually matter — that Depp never cared about winning the lawsuit, only about publicly telling his story.

Depp “pursued the lawsuit in part because, ‘It was the only time that I [Depp] was able to speak and use my own voice.’ His desire was ‘total global humiliation,’ and in that he’s already succeeded,” journalist Kenzie Bryant wrote in a Vanity Fair article about the trial.

The decision, Bryant wrote, will be “almost perfunctory. If they rule that Heard did not defame her ex-husband, she loses, because she had to be here, forced to endure untold abuse online as well as relive what was, by both accounts, a toxic marriage for many more years than the relationship lasted. If they rule that Heard did defame Depp with actual malice and caused the damages he claims, then Depp would get money on top of satisfaction.”

Emily Yahr contributed to this report.