Johnny Depp’s #MeToo Game Theory

Johnny Depp
Photo: Chris Kleponis/Getty
Eriq Gardner
May 16, 2022

This week, Johnny Depp’s libel trial against Amber Heard resumed. She’s again on the witness stand, where his lawyers are cross-examining her and attempting to poke holes in her allegations of domestic abuse. This crucial cross is being observed closely by the 11 jurors (seven leads, four alternates), all but one of whom are men.

Depp has thus far been successful in broadening out the case into what seems like a referendum on their entire marriage. It’ll now be Heard’s task in the remaining trial days ahead to narrow the scope back to her Washington Post op-ed—the one he’s suing over, which doesn’t mention his name but does state that Heard “became a public figure representing domestic abuse,” supposedly causing him $50 million in reputational damage. That’s a tall order, as I’ve written previously, given that Depp’s done a fine job of destroying his reputation all on his own.

The parties are still fussing over the precise jury instructions to be delivered, although if they resemble the Virginia Model, jurors will be told that Depp has to prove she made a statement knowing it to be false, that it was about him, that it was seen by someone else, and that the statement harmed his reputation. In other words: These jurors are not required to decide who was the true abuser in this relationship. There’s a lot of nuance in the task at hand for these jurors.

So why nearly all male jurors (and, as one attorney not involved in the case pointed out to me, young male jurors)? Maybe Heard got steamrolled during jury selection. Or perhaps, in picking a jury, there was fear on both sides about how other women would respond to the plight of an ambitious, attractive young actress. “They both probably funded research,” Juli Adelman of Vantage Trial Consulting told me. “I’m speculating how the research turned out. We have all seen Fatal Attraction.”

Outside of the courtroom, the Depp trial has become a sensation. CourtTV has doubled its normal daytime TV ratings and quadrupled its streaming numbers. Law & Crime Network has reported 330 million total viewers. On TikTok, the hashtag #justiceforjohnnydepp has surpassed 8 billion views and everyone from NPR to Vanity Fair is attempting to make sense of the phenomenon with theories that range from social media algorithms to a backlash to #MeToo. Saturday Night Live has a parody. Oh, and there’s Fox News body language experts and merch, too. Depp has, at very least, proven he’s still a bankable star.

Just know that the public spectacle implies almost nothing about the trial outcome. Heard replaced her P.R. team midtrial, although that may have had as much to do with nettlesome stories about how Elon Musk had supposedly fathered her child as with the unfavorable headlines surrounding the trial’s early days. And sure, maybe the non-sequestered jury will see news alerts on their mobile phone (as happened in Sarah Palin v. NYT earlier this year) but jurors tend to be good at filtering out noise, and in any event, seven is a small enough number to make predictions a fool’s game. 

Perhaps a more worthwhile discussion is exactly what a trial “victory” would mean for Depp’s career. I’ve yet to hear anyone suggest, for example, that studios will start hiring him again. Depp on the witness stand acknowledged there was really no coming back from allegations of domestic abuse. “I lost then no matter the outcome of this trial,” he testified.