Publisher’s note: Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former New York homicide prosecutor, and a consultant to the New York law firm Edelman & Edelman PC, focusing on wrongful conviction and civil rights cases. Follow him on Twitter @paulcallan. The opinions expressed in this comment belong solely to its author.
(CNN) — There is a story, perhaps dubious, that Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose, when asked what her father did for a living answered: “My dad is a pirate.” If Depp wins a large damages award in the case now being tried in Fairfax, Virginia, his pirate legend could grow. Of course, the jury could choose to award a huge sum of money to Depp’s ex-wife, Amber Heard, if they accept her sad descriptions of the violence and abuse Depp allegedly inflicted on her. Another real possibility is that they will both be thrown out of court empty-handed.
The Depp libel trial against Heard reached its 15th day Thursday. Depp alleges Heard falsely and maliciously accused him of domestic abuse, damaging his career and reputation worth $50 million. Heard has countersued for US $ 100 million, for damages caused.
Both Heard and Depp have mutually denied the mistreatment allegations.
The first 15 days of this trial have been more like a reality show than a trial in Virginia. Depp is decked out, in true movie star tradition, in eye-catching clothing combinations while sporting multiple rings, a ponytail, sunglasses, an ascot scarf, earrings, and a number of visible tattoos worthy of his famous portrayal of Captain Jack. Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean”.
The audience in the room has been packed, with lines of viewers looking to catch a glimpse of Depp and Heard.
However, Depp is clearly the one who draws the public. This is understandable given the 58-year-old actor’s role as the lead in 40 films with a global gross of more than $8 billion that place it in the number 3 position of the total worldwide collection. By comparison, Heard, 36, ranks 2,086th in his role as a supporting actor in 11 films that have grossed less than $1.2 billion. (Of course the Depp’s career it has also been longer than Heard’s).
In the run-up to the trial, many lawyers I spoke to who were following the case thought Depp had no chance of winning. The defamation cases Claims made by a public figure like Depp are more difficult to prove because the plaintiff must prove not only that an offensive statement about him was false, but also that it was made with “malice.”
Depp had also lost a libel case against a British tabloid in 2020 that described him as “women beater“.
During the first 13 days of the trial, Depp’s lawyers systematically tried to destroy Heard’s reputation by calling numerous witnesses who stated that things they had seen and heard suggested that she had been abusive towards Depp. Depp testified in an awkward and breathy manner, rarely making eye contact with anyone in the room, but the story he told seemed compelling to many, especially fans of his.
Backed by live testimony and video deposition from his bodyguard, Malcolm Connolly, and others, Depp’s lawyers claimed that Heard’s abuse of Depp began on their honeymoon trip on the Orient Express. Connolly testified that he observed scratches on Depp’s neck along with bruising to his eye socket and nose, as well as a swollen lip, following an alleged particularly violent attack by Heard during the trip. The bodyguard said that it seemed “that he had collided with a door, or that a door had collided with him”.
Depp’s direct testimony painted the marriage as a chamber of horrors. He recalled hiding in a bathroom for protection once after being punched in the skull by Heard, who admits on the audio tape that he cannot deny this because he was “under the influence of Ambien” at the time.
In another incident, Depp alleges that Heard threw a bottle of vodka at him, which almost severed his finger, leaving “the bone out.” Bodyguard Travis McGivern added to the litany of accusations of violent acts, recounting that he saw Heard throw a can of Red Bull at the actor’s back and also spit on him.
This is only a partial list of the violent attacks graphically described during the three days of testimony presented by Depp’s lawyers, who indicated that he sometimes had to fend off Heard.
This testimony was reinforced by a psychologist, Shannon Curry, hired by Depp’s lawyers, who examined Heard for 12 hours. She concluded that Heard has borderline personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder.
Borderline personality disorder, Curry said, “appears to be a predictive factor for women who engage in partner violence.” As for histrionic personality disorder, the symptoms show “drama and superficiality”, said.
Heard’s legal team would later respond to Curry’s claims with testimony from their hired expert, a forensic psychologist, Dawn Hughes, who had previously said that the actress had been subjected to sexual violence by Depp and believed that Heard had a post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the alleged abuse.
When Heard took the stand after Depp’s lawyers had rested their case, her demeanor contrasted sharply with Depp’s. She maintained eye contact with the jurors and with her interlocutors, shedding tears and sometimes smiles on a regular basis, openly displaying his emotions.
Depp, by contrast, seemed to maintain most of his eye contact with a monitor on the dais, often muttering and rarely changing his tone of voice or showing any kind of emotion. Depp almost seemed to be playing one of his weird movie characters instead of himself.
Heard recounted a particularly harrowing story in which Depp ripped her clothes off and subjected her to a “cavity search” for drugs while on vacation with friends in 2013.
According to their testimony, the group of friends had been consuming mushrooms – “laughing drugs“, as Heard called them, and she had ingested a mushroom cap-before this event occurred. She said that she did not attempt to leave when Depp finished this particularly vile act or when he trashed the interior of the trailer they were staying in with a terrifying fury, though he described the anguish he felt.Then they continued to vacation at the trailer park with friends.
Heard fluctuated between testifying about stories of Depp abusing her and describing how much she loved him. Experts in domestic abuse cases often testify that this is not abnormal behavior for a victim of abuse. Ultimately, the jury has to assess the relevance of the behavior in each individual case.
Assessing witness tears can be particularly difficult for jurors, in any case. Heard spilled quite a few into her testimony as he recounted Depp’s alleged sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of her. The question jurors will face is whether the tears and displays of emotion were an authentic and understandable response to actual trauma and abuse or “the performance of a lifetime,” as Depp’s lawyers allege.
When the case resumes on May 16, it is likely to last for at least another two weeks, as both Depp and Heard try to corroborate their claims with credible witnesses and other evidence. More testimonials and headlines can be expected, which will cause substantial and permanent damage to the reputations and careers of these two famous actors. Unlike his successful films, the trial of a libel case rarely has a happy ending.