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Jury Scrutinizes the Headline of Amber Heard’s Op-Ed as Deliberations Resume in Johnny Depp Defamation Case

Judge Penney Azcarate

Judge Penney Azcarate passes the questions from the jury to the lawyers as jury deliberations continue in the Depp v. Heard trial at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 31, 2022.

A Virginia jury asked a judge on Tuesday to clarify what they need to consider to find whether the headline of Amber Heard’s editorial defamed Johnny Depp.

On Dec. 18, 2018, Heard’s byline appeared on a Washington Post op-ed titled: “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” The piece did not mention Depp by name, but it allude to her accusations against him three paragraphs into the piece.

“Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out,” the op-ed states.

Depp’s attorneys call this line an unmistakable reference to Heard seeking and obtaining a restraining order against their client in May 2016. They filed a $50 million lawsuit under the doctrine of defamation by implication.

Heard countersued for $100 million after one of Depp’s attorneys, Adam Waldman, called her allegations a “hoax.”

The jury’s first question to Judge Penney Azcarate focused on the headline on the Post op-ed, asking whether they are considering the statement in isolation or in connection with the broader editorial.

“Does question number three—’The statement is false’—pertain to the headline ‘I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath,’ or does it pertain to the content of the statement and everything written in the op-ed?” the jury wrote, according to the judge.

Azcarate informed the jurors: “The statement is the headline, not the entire op-ed.”

Heard’s attorney Benjamin Rottenborn argued during summations that jurors could disbelieve the Aquaman actress’s allegations against Depp and still find she did not defame him. The headline itself did not name Depp or even portray Heard as a survivor of sexual violence. It simply stated that she “spoke up” about the topic and experienced blowback.

Those statements are true, Rottenborn said.

Trial has shown that, although the Post published the editorial under Heard’s name, it was in fact written by several lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and her legal team in a failed effort to minimize the risk of litigation.

Handed 37 pages of detailed instructions, the jury will be asked to look into three statements that Depp claims to be defamatory. The jury question only asked about the one contained in the headline.

The other two statements that Depp alleges to be defamatory are Heard’s depiction of herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse” and her assertion that she had the “rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

Rottenborn insists that those phrases hold true regardless of whether or not the jury credits Heard’s allegations against Depp, but Depp’s legal team claims that this argument is a fig leaf for the editorial’s true goal to smear him as a sexual assailant and a domestic abuser.

Heard acknowledged on the witness stand that she wrote the editorial with Depp in mind. Emails shown to the jury showed that an ACLU representative told the Post that the editorial was about how Heard was “beaten up” by Depp.

By press time, the jury has been deliberating for seven hours.

Read the jury instructions and verdict sheet, below:

(Photo by JIM WATSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."