The allegations at the center of the Depp v. Heard defamation trial are stark.
Amber Heard alleged that her ex-husband Johnny Depp subjected her to years of abuse, testifying in graphic terms about the tumult of their marriage and the toll of his “pattern” of violence. Depp, for his part, says Heard was the aggressor.
But over the last six weeks, the reality of those allegations was often obscured by a torrent of memes, mockery and misinformation on social platforms, where the first high-profile celebrity trial of the 2020s turned into a TikTok-era media circus.
“The way this trial has been framed in the public consciousness is deeply problematic,” said Jamie R. Abrams, a law professor at the University of Louisville. “It reveals so much about our society’s relationship to violence and to gendered violence particularly.”
The trial is a civil matter that largely revolves around an op-ed Heard published in The Washington Post in 2018. Depp is seeking $50 million in damages from Heard, alleging she defamed him when she wrote that she was a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” (She did not identify him by name.) Heard countersued for $100 million, alleging Depp defamed her when one of his lawyers called her abuse allegations a “hoax.”
The seven-person jury in Virginia’s Fairfax County Circuit Court, which began deliberating on Friday afternoon, must ultimately decide whether the words Heard published in The Washington Post were true. But making that ruling requires them to weigh the allegations of abuse that were entered into the record in Virginia.
“If I were giving closing arguments as one of Heard’s lawyers, I would tell the jury, ‘You don’t have to believe everything that Amber Heard has said. You don’t even have to believe every allegation of violence. You just need to believe one,’” said Danny Cevallos, an NBC News legal analyst. “If you conclude that Johnny Depp was violent to her once, then she wins, because it means she can say, truthfully, she is a survivor of abuse.”
Here’s a look at some of the major allegations and key evidence, evaluated by some legal experts.
Heard alleges Depp physically abused her
Heard, who met Depp on the set of the film “The Rum Diary” in 2011 and married him in 2015, testified about several incidents of alleged physical abuse before and during their marriage, saying his violent episodes were usually caused by some combination of alcohol, drugs or jealousy. Depp denies ever being violent with Heard or any other woman.
She said the first act of physical violence occurred in 2013, recalling that he slapped her three times one day after she laughed at one of his tattoos. “I will never forget it,” Heard said. “It changed my life.”
Heard testified about various other incidents of physical violence, describing occasions in which Depp allegedly slapped her, threw her to the ground, grabbed her by the hair, pushed her against a wall, head-butted her and threw objects at her, including drinking glasses and a cellphone.
The lawyers for Heard introduced evidence they said backed up her claims, including cellphone photos of Heard with bruises on her face, texts Depp sent using violent language and an audio recording of Heard apparently pleading with him to put down a knife. Depp’s lawyers, without providing evidence, said the images were doctored.
Bryan Neumeister, an expert witness called by Depp’s legal team, testified that embedded data showed some photos went through an Apple photo-editing and -sorting application. He noted that three photos that appeared to be the same were in fact different sizes. He did not offer an opinion as to whether they were intentionally altered.
Heard’s attorneys noted that Neumeister had no degree or certifications in computer science and that the application is also used to save photos.
Depp disputed parts of Heard’s testimony, saying he has never struck a woman. In response to the head-butting claim, Depp alleged that Heard attacked him and they might have accidentally knocked heads while he attempted to restrain her.
Truth is an absolute defense to defamation.
-Limor Mojdehiazad, a family law litigator
The trial also featured testimony from witnesses who said they saw Heard with injuries on her body, although they said they were not present when the injuries were allegedly inflicted. Heard’s former makeup artist, for example, testified that she concealed the actor’s bruises and split lip before a talk show appearance in 2015.
Limor Mojdehiazad, a family law litigator in Los Angeles who updates her more than 447,000 TikTok followers on the trial, said she found the broad sweep of Heard’s team’s evidence “persuasive.” Cevallos, the NBC News analyst, agreed.
“I think, given the evidence, I would expect a verdict for Amber Heard,” Cevallos said. “The jury can disbelieve most of what Amber Heard said, but Amber has come forward with not just testimonial evidence but also documentary evidence — videos, photographs — of injuries. If the jury connects those to one event, in theory, they should find for Amber Heard. Truth is an absolute defense to defamation.”
Heard alleges Depp sexually assaulted her
Heard’s graphic account of an incident in March 2015, roughly a month after she married Depp, became a focal point during the trial. She testified that the couple were in Australia during production of the fifth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. Depp was angry and accused her of having sex with actors in her movies, which she denied.
Heard said she confronted Depp about his drug use after he took the drug MDMA. The two argued and he became “belligerent,” she said, hitting her face, shoving her to the ground, choking her, throwing her into a pingpong table and ripping off her nightgown.
Depp then sexually assaulted her with a glass liquor bottle, Heard testified. “I couldn’t get up. I thought he was punching me,” she said. “I could just feel this pressure on my pubic bone.”
Depp has denied using MDMA in the instance Heard alleged, stating that he has used the drug maybe six or seven times in his life. He denied Heard’s allegation that he took eight to 10 MDMA pills that night in Australia, adding that he was sure he’d “be dead” if he did so.
The altercation ended with Depp writing profane messages in blood on the walls and the tip of his middle finger severed. Depp, who denied sexually assaulting Heard, says his finger was cut when she hurled a vodka bottle at him. Heard, who said she took sleeping pills after the assault, says she was not awake when Depp’s finger was cut.
In cross-examination, Depp’s lawyers pressed Heard on why she did not have medical records to substantiate the allegation of assault. In the minds of the legal experts who spoke to NBC News, though, Heard’s lack of documentation backing up the alleged assault can be interpreted in at least two ways.
“If the jury puts themselves in Heard’s shoes and hears this testimony, they might think, ‘If that happened to me, I would go to the hospital. I would at least call someone,’” Mojdehiazad said. “If the jurors think that they would have sought medical attention but she didn’t, they may not believe that testimony.”
“But if they understand that this is a Hollywood couple and maybe they don’t want the world to know anything that was happening behind closed doors, and Amber may have been full of shame, then the medical records won’t be as important to them,’” Mojdehiazad said. “You don’t have to seek medical attention when there is domestic violence. You don’t always run to a doctor when it happens.”
Cevallos echoed that point, saying: “You could draw two inferences. Maybe she didn’t seek attention because it wasn’t true. But women who are abused often internalize it and do not seek attention. I think it could cut both ways, and I think both sides know that.”
Depp alleges Heard was the aggressor
In his testimony, Depp portrayed Heard as the aggressor in their relationship and the person who instigated conflicts that sometimes led to physical altercations. He said she subjected him to “demeaning name-calling” and acting out of a “need for conflict.”
“It could begin with a slap. It could begin with a shove. It could begin with throwing a TV remote at my head, throwing a glass of wine in my face,” Depp said.
“It’s hard to explain, but the argument would start here, but it would roll around and become this circular thing of its own,” he said. “You’d get back to the beginning. … Now it’s heightened even more and it’s still circular. There’s no way in or out.”
Depp said he used drugs and alcohol as a way to psychologically cope with Heard’s alleged abuse, testifying that she also drank heavily. Depp also testified that he began taking his mother’s “nerve pills” at age 11 to “escape the chaotic nature” of the abuse he says he endured as a child.
In terms of evidence, Depp’s legal team presented audio recorded during the couple’s arguments, among other materials.
In one audio recording, Heard seemingly admits to having “hit” Depp while also denying that she punched him. In another recording, Heard says: “Tell people it was a fair fight and see what the jury and judge think. Tell the world, Johnny. Tell them, ‘I, Johnny Depp, I’m a victim too of domestic violence, and it was a fair fight,’ and see if people believe or side with you.”
Heard has testified she struck Depp only in self-defense and to protect her sister, Whitney Henriquez.
Depp’s attorneys called several witnesses, including the actor’s security team, his sister, a forensic psychologist they hired and a marriage counselor who conducted their sessions while they were still a couple. Laurel Anderson, the marriage counselor, said she observed “mutual abuse” in the relationship. Depp’s security team testified that they never witnessed Depp assault Heard but said their relationship was volatile.
Mojdehiazad said she believes the invocation of “mutual abuse,” a divisive concept among domestic violence experts, was “not helpful for Depp’s case, because if that’s true, then Amber Heard was in an abusive relationship. She was one part of it and she may have been the aggressor, but she’s still one of two — so she can still make the statement that she made in The Washington Post.”
Cevallos said Depp’s team did not introduce any material evidence that struck him as especially persuasive, but he said he believes there is an “X factor” that means a Heard victory is not a foregone conclusion.
“The piece of evidence is the ‘X factor’ that was the hypnotic testimony and general star power of Johnny Depp. If he weren’t Johnny Depp, the first five minutes of his eccentric, bizarre style of testifying would have turned off, I think, every jury and every lawyer and every judge,” Cevallos said.
“But for some reason, Johnny Depp has that je ne sais quoi that studios paid millions of dollars for, and it seems to be working at least on social media. Whether or not it’s working on the jury, we’ll see,” Cevallos said.
Abrams, the law professor, expressed skepticism about the groundswell of support for Depp on social media, where some of his defenders rallied around the hashtag #JusticeForJohnny or mocked Heard.
“There will be questions to unravel later about whether this social media swirl happened organically or whether this was part of a targeted strategy orchestrated by any larger cause,” Abrams said.
She also raised concerns about how what she characterized as the “toxic backlash” to the case could shape the decisions of “everyday victims” of abuse.
“While Heard and Depp have a fleet of lawyers and publicists supporting them through this, ordinary people have none of this. I trust that Depp and Heard will pick up the pieces of their lives — regardless of the case outcome — and return to their circles and careers, respectively,” Abrams said.
“I am gravely worried, though, about how everyday victims of domestic and sexual abuse throughout the country who have not yet come forward will be silenced by this case and the toxic backlash that is far bigger than just Heard,” Abrams said.
If you or someone you know is facing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence hotline for help at (800) 799-SAFE (7233), or go to www.thehotline.org for more. States often have domestic violence hotlines as well.