- A juror said that Amber Heard was not believable on the bench.
- Trauma experts told Insider that how a survivor gets emotional at the booth is not an indicator that they are lying.
- How trauma survivors present themselves in recounting their experience can vary greatly, they said.
At the end of each trial, jurors across America are tasked with assessing the credibility of each witness based on their testimony and other evidence in the case.
After the verdict was announced in the defamation case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – which captivated the nation for more than six weeks – a juror revealed that the actress lost the case because of her behavior at the bank and that her “crocodile tears ” when making allegations of domestic violence wasn’t “believable”.
But trauma experts caution against relying solely on how emotional a witness might be during testimony when assessing his or her credibility. Like soldiers, victims of sexual or domestic abuse may not come across as expected when reporting their trauma, they said.
Some survivors may react by recounting their experience and appear frightened, agitated or distressed, but then quickly “turn around” as their body tries to calm the agitation, Dr. New York, he told Insider.
“So the person can appear flat and separate and disconnected,” said Porterfield, who works with Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. “All of this is hard for juries to understand because it seems counterintuitive that a person might look boring or maybe even bored, or that a person has a hard time remembering details of something horrible they’ve suffered.”
Understanding trauma and being able to empathize
Depp has filed a defamation suit against Heard in response to an article she wrote for The Washington Post that detailed her experience with domestic violence. Depp’s name was not mentioned, but the article was widely interpreted to be about him. According to Depp’s $50 million lawsuit, Heard fabricated an incident where she accused Depp of beating her up and, in fact, verbally and physically assaulted him on multiple occasions.
Heard denied the allegations and counter-sued for $100 million, arguing that Depp defamed her through statements made by her lawyer, Adam Waldman, who called Heard’s allegations of abuse by Depp “a hoax”. She also testified that Depp physically beat her during their relationship, which Depp denied.
The jury’s decision, after nearly three days of deliberations, resulted in both liability, with Depp receiving more than $10 million in damages and Heard $2 million. Depp is considered to have won the case as he owed less in damages.
When the unnamed juror spoke on Good Morning America days after the verdict was handed down, he said Depp sounded more genuine in the deposition.
“A lot of the jury felt that what he was saying, in the end, was more believable,” the juror said in the interview. “He seemed a little more real in terms of how he was answering questions. His emotional state was very stable all the time.”
Dr. Jim Hopper, a clinical psychologist and nationally recognized expert on psychological trauma, said that as human beings, it is natural to make judgments about someone based on how they are expressing their emotions.
“You’re only human, so you can’t help it,” said Hopper, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “The question is what knowledge base do you have? … If he was someone who was traumatized, then are you able to empathize with someone who can express that trauma in many different ways?”
Hopper provides training in trauma processing for law enforcement groups on best practices when interacting with victims of sexual violence.
To help officers better bond with these survivors, Hopper said he draws parallels between assault survivors and soldiers.
“When police officers and soldiers talk about their military experiences, they’re not always expressing a lot of emotion and may not even want to talk about it with people who haven’t been there and don’t understand,” he said. “People can experience and express all kinds of different emotions, and that can be very unique to the individual and it can be unique to the context.”
In this case, for example, the trial was taking place in a courtroom full of Johnny Depp supporters, Hopper said.
“The courtroom was packed with Johnny Depp fans who were constantly directing enormous hostility towards Amber Heard and all of her witnesses,” Hopper said. “So not only was one person really traumatized, and what would that be like? But also, what’s it like remembering your trauma in public with a bunch of hostile people looking at you and giving you disapproving looks all the time?”
Real world impact
The case between Depp and Heard is unusual in the sense that it was a highly publicized defamation trial that millions were watching — and both parties are professional actors.
But survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other forms of trauma are witnesses in criminal and civil cases every day, and psychology experts believe it’s important to educate the public and jurors about how the brain works under attack to avoid harmful misconceptions.
“I’ve had some of my clients who have been quite fired up… who were very upset by the way they witnessed Amber being treated,” Porter said. “A lot of my fellow therapists said that their clients were really having a hard time based on what they were seeing if they were watching and then what they were reading and hearing secondarily in the media and on social media.”
During a deposition day, Heard cried uncontrollably at the booth as he recounted, in graphic detail, how Depp penetrated her with a bottle of alcohol during a fight in Australia in March 2015. On social media, Depp’s fans criticized his behavior at the booth. – turning his tearful face into a meme.
Heard testified through tears that she had received hundreds, if not thousands, of death threats every day during the trial. She said the process and the related humiliation made her relive the trauma caused by Depp.
His lawyers in the case said in closing arguments that the jury should see a guilty verdict against Heard as a message to “all victims of domestic abuse everywhere.”
“Statement against Amber here sends a message that no matter what you do as a victim of abuse, you always have to do more,” said attorney Benjamin Rottenborn. Depp’s lawyers asked that the comments be removed from the record.
Julie Rendelman, a former Brooklyn homicide prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney and legal analyst, told Insider that when she worked as a prosecutor, it was always “disheartening” to ask a victim to testify.
“They go through a lot, especially in cross-examination. If they’re prepared and understand how important it is to tell the truth, then you expect the jury to make the right decision,” Rendelman said. “It’s always a difficult decision (for the victim) because of the recognition that you will be questioned about your credibility – as it should be, because that’s what a jury trial is all about.”
Taking in all the evidence
Rendelman agreed that everyone reacts differently when testifying, and judging credibility solely on how a witness gets emotional might not be helpful, but said it shouldn’t be ruled out completely.
The jury did nothing wrong in forming a reaction to Heard’s behavior in court, and it’s her job to assess her credibility, she said.
“When I tell someone bad news, I actually laugh a little, right? Because I get nervous,” Rendelman said. “Everyone has a different reaction, so it’s always stressful to think that a jury would decide something based just on how I feel, or someone else, but it should at least be a factor for them to consider when they’re deciding someone’s credibility.”
In this trial, jurors had more to judge Heard than just his behavior on the bench, Rendelman said.
The unnamed juror said in his interview that the jury was also uneasy about Heard’s apparent lie about donating his $7 million divorce settlement to the American Civil Liberties Union and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, for example.
Although Heard previously said that she donated the settlement, she testified that she did not complete her donations.
“It wasn’t just that she had what they saw as ‘crocodile tears,'” Rendalman said. “It was that she had that emotion, or lack thereof, along with serious questions about her credibility when she testified.”
Coverage of the trial by Insider reporters Ashley Collman and Jacob Shamsian was included in this report.