As Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial nears its welcome end, the breathless speculation about the case’s purported deeper meaning shows no sign of slowing down. Depending on who you ask, the trial might be a referendum on Me Too, a commentary on TikTok bullying, a simple legal issue obscured by sensationalism, or an example of the hot-take express at work. Throughout the six-week trial, celebrities and public figures have sporadically weighed in — later apologizing for doing so, depending on what they say. The high-profile trial, which is being aired on CourtTV and livestreamed everywhere else, has become the perfect recipe for half-baked, overbaked, and nearly raw analyses. But maybe they are all right? Maybe all of them are wrong? Maybe the public really does care what Courtney Love, Drew Barrymore, and Amanda Knox think about the case? Or maybe — and apologies for the nihilism — the big question we should be asking instead of “What does this really mean?” is “What is really the point of this trial?”
Throughout the proceedings, Depp has claimed that Heard’s 2018 Washington Post op-ed about domestic abuse defamed him and insisted that she actually abused him. Heard claimed that Depp’s denials — through one of his lawyers, Adam Waldman — defamed her and reaffirmed he abused her. Depp and Heard both claim they suffered reputational and professional harm as a result of the allegations and denials, respectively. Depp said his motivation for being in court and suing Heard was “to not only attempt to clear my name for … many reasons, but I wanted to clear my children of this horrible thing that they were reading about their father.”
“The point of this trial? Essentially it was called by Johnny Depp to reclaim his reputation, get movie roles back, and be able to make a living again and not be ostracized as he had been because of this article,” said Juda Engelmayer, the public-relations and crisis-management veteran who reps disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein. “That is the crux of it, and I believe that’s really the ultimate goal for him, to be seen as someone who’s marketable, able to come back — not the evil guy he was painted as.”
Even if that is the point, after six weeks of trial, nothing has really emerged that makes either of them look all that great, let alone clear their reputations. Testimony revealed the couple’s own marriage counselor felt that they had engaged in “mutual abuse.” Depp and others close to him described his extensive history of drug and alcohol abuse on the stand. Some recordings shown to the court seem to cast Heard as an antagonist and, at one point, she admitted to hitting him in the face. There have been hours of graphic discourse over what, or who, cut off Depp’s fingertip. And testimony from both sides’ witnesses made the exes seem like untethered elites who spent excessively and neglected philanthropic efforts.
Much of the trial has been marked by conversations around each party’s respective careers — Heard’s desire to expand hers and, she alleged, Depp’s insistence on not letting that happen. Both have alleged that their respective abuse claims tanked their careers. Regardless, the outcome of this trial might not impact the ex-couple’s career prospects in all that negative a way, Engelmayer predicted. The proceedings, albeit messy, might even help their career prospects. “I think a vast majority of the public decided that they like Johnny Depp and that they want to support him, and I believe studios will ultimately see that for the money that it might be worth,” he said. “While he probably won’t get leading-man roles in family happy films, he might get roles in gangster films as a bad guy, as a guy you’d love to hate, things like that.” Successes would build on each other. “And if the box office continues to do well, he’ll get bigger rolls again,” he added.
And it wouldn’t be just Depp back in good graces, despite the adamant online abuse Heard is receiving. “I think Amber Heard, also, because she did what she did,” he said. “She put herself out there. She’s a hero for women. She stood her ground. I think studios will give her roles too.”
“It seems to me that Johnny Depp wanted to get his side of the story out and let the public determine who wins here, and in the court of public opinion, Johnny Depp is the clear winner. He has accomplished his mission,” Winter Wheeler, an arbitrator and mediator who previously worked as a litigator, said. “Ultimately, though, I believe most people had chosen a side before trial started, and they’ve only gotten more entrenched with each passing day.”
Wheeler said of the public sentiment: “Johnny Depp has already emerged as a tragic hero and the trial is ongoing. He’s clearly flawed but owns up to those flaws. He went from villain to underdog in a matter of weeks, and people really want to see him win. And just as much as people want to see him win, they want to see Amber Heard lose.”
The potential legal outcomes also raise the question: What is the point? Brett Turnbull, a veteran personal injury attorney with Turnbull, Holcomb, and Lemoine, explained the numerous possible verdicts. Jurors could vote in favor of either Depp or Heard, of course, and then decide to award the winner a sizable sum. The jury could also decide to vote in favor of either Depp or Heard but decide to award the victor a “nominal” sum — like $1. “Someone wins,” Turnbull said, but in that situation, “it’s a symbolic verdict that says, ‘We support your claims, we find in your favor, but we’re not willing to consider that for actual monetary damages.’” The jury could also find against both Depp and Heard, meaning they could decide that neither defamed the other. “It’s their right to evaluate the witnesses and the evidence and make decisions based on what they hear and what they see,” Turnbull said. “And they literally have the right to come back and say, ‘We find that Johnny Depp did not prove his case and that Amber Heard did not prove her case’ — and it will be just null and void on both ends.”
It’s also unclear why people care so much about this trial, seemingly more so than other high-profile cases. “For me, it’s all about the timing,” Wheeler said. “For weeks on end, we were bombarded with Ukraine coverage to the exclusion of all else — rightfully so — but I was very welcoming of the reprieve the Depp v. Heard trial has offered.” Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter journalism institute, also had an explanation. “I got two words for you: Johnny Depp.” Clark continued, “I’ve got another name for you: O.J. Simpson.”
Schadenfreude might also play a role. After building up celebrities and other public figures, Clark said, “there’s also this kind of counterweight, in which we want to pay close attention when they’re torn down.” A fair point.