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Did the court of public opinion influence the Depp v Heard verdict?


Outside a courtroom in Fairfax, Va., fans were ready for a verdict in favor of Johnny Depp.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny.

MARTÍNEZ: Jurors in the defamation case against his ex-wife and fellow actor Amber Heard awarded Depp more than $10 million in damages. It's been a long trial. And here with us now is one of our culture desk reporters, Andrew Limbong. Andrew, before we start, we should say we will be talking about domestic violence and sexual assault. Before we get to that, can you tell us about the verdict?

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: So, yeah, the jury unanimously sided with Johnny Depp, you know, saying that Amber Heard acted with actual malice in defaming him. They originally awarded him $15 million, but because of, you know, certain laws in Virginia, the judge amended that down to just over $10 million. Here's Depp's lawyer, Benjamin Chew, speaking just outside the courthouse yesterday, thanking the jury and Depp supporters.


BENJAMIN CHEW: We are also most pleased that the trial has resonated for so many people in the public who value truth and justice.

LIMBONG: Now, I should add that Heard did countersue, and then the jury also awarded her $2 million.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. Tell us more about the op-ed that Amber Heard wrote that started this whole thing.

LIMBONG: Yeah. So this was back in 2018. And remember, this is when the #MeToo movement was hitting a sort of a cultural peak. Heard published an op-ed in The Washington Post, and in it, she wrote that she had become a, quote, "public figure representing domestic abuse," end quote. And, you know, she didn't name Depp, but the two had just come out of a pretty public and messy divorce. And in the op-ed, she wrote that she was scared to go public with this information because of all the public scrutiny she'd face and the possible roles she'd lose out on. And, you know, now, Depp's argument for suing her was that the op-ed was baseless and that it cost him roles, you know, including another "Pirates Of The Caribbean" movie.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, what was the trial like? I know it lasted a long time.

LIMBONG: Yeah, it was. It was about, like, six weeks. And the testimonies from the two of them went into a lot of lurid details about their really turbulent relationship, which, you know, I should say, a lot of this information came out in 2020 when Depp sued the English paper The Sun for libel for calling him a, quote, "wife beater." It was a pretty similar case, except for the fact that Depp actually lost that one. But here in the States, Depp testified that Heard was the abuser, that she punched him and once threw a bottle of vodka at him, which cut his finger. And his lawyers also made the argument that the original Washington Post op-ed was timed to publish so that it boosted publicity for the "Aquaman" movie that Amber Heard starred in. Now, Heard denied that and testified that Depp was routinely, like, jealous and angry and abusive and even sexually assaulted her.

MARTÍNEZ: What has Amber Heard said about the verdict?

LIMBONG: So after the verdict, she posted a statement on Instagram saying she was heartbroken and disappointed, you know, not just for her own case but for what it means for other women. She wrote, quote, "it sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously." And now, you know, Heard can appeal all this, but it's unclear if she will 'cause, like, if you follow the case at all on social media, you would have seen that when it comes to the sort of court of public opinion, whether it was on, like, Twitter or YouTube or TikTok, all of them, Amber Heard was routinely villainized and painted as an abusive liar. And, you know, we heard those cheers at the top - right? - after the jury decision was announced and Johnny Depp stans were out there every day sort of dressed in "Pirates Of The Caribbean" gear, you know, supporting him throughout the whole thing. And so what's sort of, like, on display is the dynamics of our, you know, cultural fandom sort of interacting with how, you know, we as a society view women.

MARTÍNEZ: That was NPR's Andrew Limbong. Andrew, thanks a lot.

LIMBONG: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Andrew Limbong
Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.