Representation and Power in the Modern American Courtroom: An Examination of the Depp Vs. Heard Trial

Document Type : Original Article


Nile University


During April 2022, and for three weeks, millions of global audiences followed the Depp vs. Heard Trial. Global curiosity went beyond the details of the private lives of two celebrities to the teams of attorneys. Unspecialized audiences started to notice the power exerted by the opposing counsels: not only to control witnesses, but to represent the same events and the same social actors through polarized narratives. This paper focuses on the examination and cross-examination of the star witnesses of the trial: Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, paying special attention to linguistic cues used to manipulate their representation and delineate alternative narratives. Guided by Bell’s (1984) model for Audience Design, questioning strategies were examined through the lens of Archer’s (2005) Continuum of Control unraveling confirmation versus information-seeking lines of questioning, along with van Dyke’s (1998) representational framework which was used to examine the witnesses’ responses and how all was amalgamed to create opposing representation of the same events. Findings shed light on how Depp’s attorneys succeeded in winning over the jury and the support of millions through his representation as a child abuse victim and capitalized on and expanded that as an adult victim of domestic abuse. This was done through carefully crafted questions by the attorneys and unexpected assumption of power by Depp as a witness, all while eluding representations of him as an addict and an abuser. Findings also revealed the shortcomings of Heard’s attorneys who failed in representing her as a devoted wife and a sexual assault victim.