Following the Johnny Depp–Amber Heard verdict, some legal experts are questioning whether the jurors who decided the case acted as impartially as they were supposed to—and whether they even understood the law they were deciding on in the first place.
The case was marked by a social media circus that overwhelmingly painted Depp as the hero and Heard as the villain, a narrative that may have influenced the jury, which wasn’t sequestered.
“It wasn’t a typical trial,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. “I was pretty surprised about the verdict, and also surprised there could be one for each of them.”
On Wednesday, the seven-person jury unanimously concluded that Depp was defamed by Heard. They said her Washington Post op-ed at the heart of the trial, which is about her experiences with domestic violence, was false and that Heard had acted “with actual malice” when she published it. Depp was awarded $15 million in damages.
The jury, also tasked with determining whether Depp defamed Heard based on three statements, decided it was defamatory when Depp’s lawyer referred to some of Heard’s allegations as a “hoax.” She was awarded $2 million in damages.
To prove defamation in the U.S., a plaintiff must convince the jury that the statement in question was knowingly false and that its intent was negligent or malicious—a high bar.
Legal experts have pointed out that the verdicts seem contradictory.
“How can it be that Amber Heard was defamed when Johnny Depp’s lawyer said that her allegations were a hoax, and yet Johnny Depp was also defamed when she said she was representative of domestic violence?” Lisa Bloom, an attorney who represented Mischa Barton in a revenge porn case as well as Bill Cosby accuser Janice Dickinson, told the BBC. “That’s inconsistent, and you can’t have an inconsistent verdict.”
According to Tobias, it’s “unusual at best” that both Depp and Heard met the very high standard set in defamation law.
The six-week trial was also paired with a deluge of content on social media that experts say may have swayed the jury. “Even if we take out of the equation who was right and who was wrong… social media very effectively made Depp look better than Heard,” family and divorce attorney Sandra Radna said.
She said the verdict didn’t shock her because of what she saw play out online.
Juries are only supposed to evaluate the evidence presented in court, but the sheer amount of anti-Heard and pro-Depp content online was so significant that it’s unlikely jurors weren’t exposed to it, Radna said. She added that even if jurors followed the rules and didn’t go on social media, their friends and family were likely talking to them about the case.
“This is a landmark case in terms of social media being so involved,” Radna said. “I do think it influenced the jury and the outcome of the trial. It begs the question: What happens for the next celebrity case that goes to court?”
That’s another defining part of the trial: the celebrity factor. Johnny Depp is recognized around the world as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and as Edward Scissorhands.
“Who doesn't know these two people? And Johnny Depp is clearly a lot more well-known, so that celebrity figure already doesn't help anyone who would be in a decision-making position in a situation like this,” said Deepa Mattoo, the executive director of the Toronto-based Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which supports marginalized women who’ve survived violence.
Ideally, juries are vetted to make sure bias is controlled for. So, for example, a Depp fan with posters of him strung up in their room could be weeded out, Radna said.
But the celebrity factor, and the fact that the trial was televised, did create more interest on social media, a platform that’s harder to control, she said. “You couldn’t escape it,” Radna said of the trial-related memes.
A lot of commentators have said that the jury should have been sequestered, with jurors posted up in hotels with no access to TV and social media. But that’s hard to do during a six-week trial, Tobias said, adding that most people can’t take six weeks off from their lives.
“I don’t envy the judge—or the jurors—because it’s hard to protect them from these influences,” Tobias said.
Radna said the social media storm could have been avoided if cameras weren’t allowed in the courtroom; because this was televised, content creators were able to cut snippets of the trials and turn them into memes, which were then viewed by billions.
“If it was ‘no cameras, no social media permitted’, this wouldn’t have happened,” Radna said.
Heard’s team has already said they plan to appeal the verdict.
Radna said an appeal could tweak the law so that future high-profile cases would be less public.
In the meantime, Tobias said he worries about what the Depp-Heard case means for juries and a person’s right to a fair trial.
“Juries are a core value that courts want to protect—that’s to give people a fair day in court,” Tobias said. “That’s difficult to do with other influences.”
“It’s an enormous task to keep those influences out of it and maybe that's part of what fascinated some people and horrified others,” he said.
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