The way Amber Heard got emotional on the stand doesn’t mean she lied: trauma experts

The way Amber Heard got emotional on the stand doesn’t mean she lied: trauma experts

  • A juror said Amber Heard was not credible on the stand.
  • Trauma experts told Insider that the way a survivor speaks on the stand is not an indicator that they are lying.
  • How trauma survivors present themselves while recounting their experience can vary widely, 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 libel case between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – which has captivated the nation for more than six weeks – a juror has revealed the actress lost the case due to her behavior at the bar and that his “crocodile tears” when the domestic abuse allegations were not “credible”.

But trauma experts caution against relying solely on how emotional a witness may be during testimony when assessing credibility. Like soldiers, victims of sexual or domestic abuse may not come forward as expected when recounting their trauma, they said.

Some survivors may react by recounting their experience and appear frightened, agitated or distressed, but then quickly “switch” as their body tries to calm the agitation, said Dr. Kate Porterfield, clinical psychologist at the Bellevue Hospital Program for Survivors of Torture. in New York, Insider said.

“So the person then can appear flat, detached, and disconnected,” said Porterfield, who works with Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. “All of this is difficult for jurors to understand because it seems counter-intuitive that a person might look flat or maybe even bored, or that a person might have trouble remembering the details of something. horrible thing she went through.”

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp.

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp.


Understanding trauma and being able to empathize

Depp filed a libel suit against Heard in response to an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post that detailed her experience of 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 and had, in fact, verbally and physically assaulted her on numerous occasions.

Heard denied the allegations and countersued for $100 million, arguing that Depp defamed her through statements made by her attorney, Adam Waldman, who called Depp’s abuse of Heard allegations ” prank”. She also testified that Depp physically beat her during their relationship, which Depp denied.

The jury’s decision, after nearly three days of deliberation, resulted in both being liable, 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 damages.

When the anonymous male juror spoke on Good Morning America days after the verdict was delivered, he said Depp seemed more authentic on the stand.

“A lot of the jury felt that what he was saying, ultimately, was more believable,” the juror said in the interview. “He just seemed a bit more real in terms of how he answered questions. His emotional state was very stable throughout.”

Context matters

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 express 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 it was someone who was traumatized, then are you able to empathize with someone who might express that trauma in different ways? manners?”

Hopper conducts trauma processing trainings for police groups on best practices when interacting with victims of sexual violence.

To help officers better understand these survivors, Hopper said he draws on parallels between assault survivors and soldiers.

“When police and soldiers talk about their military experiences, they don’t always express a lot of emotion and they may not even want to talk about it to people who haven’t been there and don’t understand,” he said. he declared. “People can feel and express all kinds of different emotions, and it 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 filled with Johnny Depp fans who constantly directed massive hostility against Amber Heard and all of her witnesses,” Hopper said. “So it’s not just, was a person really traumatized, and what would that be like? But, also, what’s it like to remember your trauma in public with a group of hostile people who look down on you and look askance at you all the time?”

Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp is seen in Fairfax County Circuit Court on May 26, 2022.


Real-world impact

The case between Depp and Heard is unusual in that it was a high-profile libel lawsuit that was watched by millions – and both sides 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 psychological experts say it’s important to educate the public and jurors about the brain function attacked to avoid harmful misconceptions.

“I’ve had a few of my clients who have been quite triggered … who have been quite upset with how they saw Amber hearing being treated,” Porter said. “A group of my fellow therapists said their clients had a really hard time basing themselves on what they saw if they looked, and then what they read and heard secondarily in the media and on social media.”

During a day of testimony, Heard sobbed uncontrollably on the stand while recounting, in detail, how Depp penetrated her with a bottle of alcohol during a fight in Australia in March 2015. On the social media, Depp fans singled out his behavior on the stand – turning his crying face into a meme.

Heard testified, through tears, that she received hundreds, if not thousands, of death threats every day throughout the trial. She said the procedure and the humiliation associated with it made her relive the trauma caused by Depp.

His attorneys in the case said in their closing arguments that the jury should consider a guilty verdict against Heard as a message to “all victims of domestic violence everywhere.”

“A ruling against Amber here sends the message that no matter what you do as a victim of abuse, you always need to do more,” attorney Benjamin Rottenborn said. Depp’s attorneys have asked that the comments be stricken from the record.

Julie Rendelman, a former Brooklyn homicide prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney and legal analyst, told Insider when she worked as a prosecutor that it was always “intimidating” to ask a victim to testify.

“They’re subject to a lot of things, especially in cross-examination. If they’re prepared and understand how important it is to tell the truth, then you hope the jury makes the right decision,” Rendelman said. . “It’s always a tough decision (for the victim) because of the recognition that you’re going to be questioned about your credibility – as you should be, because that’s what a trial is all about. jury.”

An image of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.


Collect all the evidence

Rendelman agreed that everyone reacts differently when testifying, and judging credibility solely on how emotional a witness may not be helpful, but said that shouldn’t be completely ignored.

The jury did nothing wrong in forming a reaction to Heard’s behavior in court, and it’s their job to assess his credibility, she said.

“When I tell someone bad news, I kinda laugh, right? Because I get nervous,” Rendelman said. “Everyone has a different reaction, so it’s always nerve-wracking that a jury would decide something based solely on how I blunt, or someone else, but that should be at the less of a factor to consider when deciding someone’s credibility.”

In this trial, jurors had more to judge Heard than his behavior on the stand, Rendelman said.

The anonymous juror said in his interview that the jury was also disturbed by 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 she had donated the settlement, she testified that she had not completed her donations.

“It wasn’t just that she had what they considered ‘crocodile tears,'” Rendalman said. “It’s that she had that emotion, or lack thereof, coupled 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.

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