How Amber Heard Emoted on the Stand Doesn’t Mean She Lied: Trauma Experts
- A juror spoke out that Amber Heard wasn’t believable on the stand.
- Experts in trauma told Insider that how a survivor emotes on the stand isn’t an indicator they’re lying.
- How trauma survivors present while recounting their experience can vary greatly, they said.
At the end of every trial, jurors across America are tasked with weighing 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 — one juror revealed that the female actress lost the case because of her demeanor on the stand and that her “crocodile tears” when making allegations of domestic violence weren’t “believable.”
But experts in trauma warn against relying solely on how a witness may emote during testimony when assessing their credibility. Like soldiers, victims of sexual or domestic abuse may not present as expected when recounting their trauma, they said.
Some survivors may react to recounting their experience and appear frightened, agitated, or distressed, but then quickly “flip” as their body tries to calm the agitation, Dr. Kate Porterfield, a clinical psychologist at the Bellevue Hospital Program for Survivors of Torture in New York City, told Insider.
“Thus, the person can then appear flat, detached, and disconnected,” said Porterfield, who works with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University. “All of this is difficult for juries to understand because it seems counterintuitive that a person could look flat or maybe even bored, or that a person would have difficulty remembering details of something horrific that she suffered.”
Understanding trauma and being capable of empathy
Depp filed a defamation suit against Heard in response to an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post that detailed her experience with domestic violence. Depp’s name wasn’t mentioned, but the article was widely interpreted as being 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 him on numerous occasions.
Heard denied the claims and countersued for $100 million, arguing that Depp defamed her through statements made by his lawyer, Adam Waldman, who called Heard’s claims of abuse by Depp a “hoax.” She also testified Depp physically beat her during their relationship, which Depp denied.
The jury’s ruling, after nearly three days of deliberations, resulted in both being liable with Depp being awarded 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 male juror spoke out on Good Morning America, days after the verdict was handed down, he said that Depp seemed more genuine on the stand.
“A lot of the jury felt what he was saying, at the end of the day, was more believable,” the juror said in the interview. “He just seemed a little more real in terms of how he was responding to questions. His emotional state was very stable throughout.”
Context is important
Dr. Jim Hopper, a clinical psychologist and nationally recognized expert on psychological trauma, said that as humans it’s only natural to make judgments about someone based on how they’re expressing their emotions.
“You’re only human, so you can’t help it,” said Hopper, a teaching associate at Harvard Medical School. “The question is what knowledge base do you have? … If they were someone who was traumatized, then are you capable of empathizing with someone who might express that trauma in a variety of different ways?”
Hopper hosts trainings on trauma processing to police groups on best practices when interacting with victims of sexual violence.
To help officers better relate to these survivors, Hopper said he draws on parallels between assault survivors and soldiers.
“When police officers and soldiers talk about their military experiences, they’re not always expressing lots of emotion and they may not even want to talk about them to 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 filled with Johnny Depp supporters, Hopper said.
“The courtroom was packed with Johnny Depp fans who were constantly directing massive hostility at Amber Heard and all of her witnesses,” Hopper said. “So it’s not just, was a person really traumatized, and what would that look like? But, also, what is it like to remember your trauma in public with a bunch of hostile people staring you down and giving you dirty looks the whole time?”
Real world impact
The case between Depp and Heard is unusual in the sense that it was a highly publicized defamation trial in which 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 is important to educate the public and jurors on how the brain functions under attack to avoid harmful misconceptions.
“I had a couple of my clients who were pretty triggered … who were pretty upset by the way they witnessed Amber heard being treated,” Porter said. “A bunch of my therapist colleagues said their clients were really having a tough 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 one day of testimony, Heard sobbed uncontrollably on the stand while recounting, in graphic detail, how Depp penetrated her with an alcohol bottle during a fight in Australia in March 2015. Across social media, Depp fans picked apart her demeanor on the stand — turning her crying face into a meme.
Heard testified, through tears, that she had received hundreds of death threats, if not thousands, every day throughout the trial. She said the proceedings and related humiliation made her relive the trauma caused by Depp.
Her lawyers in the case said in closing arguments that the jury should view a guilty verdict against Heard as a message to “every victim of domestic abuse everywhere.”
“Ruling against Amber here sends a message that no matter what you do as an abuse victim, you always have to do more,” Attorney Benjamin Rottenborn said. Depp’s lawyers asked the comments to be stricken from the record.
Julie Rendelman, a former Brooklyn homicide prosecutor, and current criminal defense attorney and legal analyst told Insider when working as a prosecutor it was always “daunting” to ask a victim to testify.
“They’re put through quite a lot, especially on 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 difficult decision (for the victim) because of the recognition that you are going to be questioned about your credibility — as you should be, because that is what a jury trial’s all about.”
Taking in all of the evidence
Rendelman agreed that everyone reacts differently when testifying, and judging credibility solely on how a witness emotes may not be helpful, but said it shouldn’t be brushed off completely.
The jury didn’t do anything wrong by forming a reaction to Heard’s behavior in court, and it is their job to assess her credibility, she said.
“When I tell someone bad news, I actually giggle a little bit, right? Because I get nervous,” Rendelman said. “Everyone has a different reaction, and so it’s always nerve-wracking at the thought that a jury would decide something based solely on how I emote, or somebody else, but it should be at least a factor for them to consider when they’re deciding someone’s credibility.”
In this trial, jurors had more to judge Heard on than just her behavior on the stand, Rendelman said.
The unnamed juror said in his interview that the jury was also unsettled by Heard’s apparent lie about donating her $7 million divorce settlement to the American Civil Liberties Union and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, for example.
Despite Heard saying previously that she donated the settlement, she testified that she didn’t complete her donations.
“It wasn’t just that she had, what they viewed as, ‘crocodile tears,'” Rendalman said. “It was that she had that emotion, or lack thereof, coupled with serious questions about her credibility when she testified.”
Trial coverage by Insider reporters Ashley Collman and Jacob Shamsian was included in this report.