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Jury rules actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamed each other

Johnny Depp is awarded $15 million in damages in lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard. Jurors also found for part of her counter-claim, awarding her $2 million.

A jury decided on June 1 that Johnny Depp, through his lawyer Adam Waldman, defamed Amber Heard on one of three counts in her countersuit against him. (Video: Reuters)
13 min

A Fairfax County Circuit Court jury found Wednesday that Amber Heard defamed ex-husband Johnny Depp with a 2018 opinion article in which she described herself as a representative of domestic abuse, and agreed with Depp that Heard’s statements harmed his reputation, awarding him $15 million.

At the same time, the seven-person jury also found that Depp, through his lawyer Adam Waldman, defamed Heard in one of three counts in her countersuit, and awarded her $2 million.

The unanimous decision was delivered after about 13 total hours of deliberation that began Friday, ending a trial that featured sometimes-graphic testimony and was hotly debated by viewers and legal experts as it streamed and was televised worldwide for nearly seven weeks.

Some cheered for what they saw as a victory for men who are wrongly accused of physical and sexual abuse, while the decision struck others as a cruel statement on the rights of victims to speak out. While the details of the case may have enraptured the millions who watched it — Law&Crime Network alone saw more than 3 million viewers tune in to its live stream of the verdict — and saw the social-media vitriol directed at Heard, it leaves behind serious questions about the future of abuse victims’ willingness and ability to come forward — and perhaps their legal options.

“The jury gave me my life back,” Depp, 58, said in what amounted to a lengthy victory statement. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” star, who was seen playing guitar in rock concerts in England over the weekend, chose not to return to the Fairfax County Courthouse for the verdict.

“From the very beginning, the goal of bringing this case was to reveal the truth, regardless of the outcome,” Depp’s statement continued. “Speaking the truth was something that I owed to my children and to all those who have remained steadfast in their support of me. I feel at peace knowing I have finally accomplished that.”

Heard, 36, who solemnly watched in the courtroom as the verdict was read, said in a statement that the “disappointment I feel today is beyond words. I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women.”

“It is a setback,” the statement continued. “It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously.”

Depp filed a defamation lawsuit seeking $50 million from Heard over a 2018 op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post, in which she referred to herself as a public figure representing domestic abuse, but didn’t name Depp. He claimed the piece damaged his career, and he has denied all allegations of abuse. Heard countersued Depp for $100 million after Waldman gave several statements in the media describing her claims as false. The Post was not a defendant in Depp’s lawsuit. (Part of the jury’s amount awarded to Depp on Wednesday — $5 million in punitive damages — will be automatically reduced to $350,000, per Virginia law.)

In the minutes after the verdict was announced, Depp fans rejoiced — at the courthouse, online and elsewhere — over what they largely characterized as a heavily one-sided victory for Depp. David Ring, a civil trial lawyer based in Los Angeles who specializes in sexual assault cases and civil litigation, agreed with that takeaway. “Johnny Depp is the slam-dunk winner. No question,” Ring said. “I think 99 out of 100 cases, when you have a big celebrity involved, the celebrity wins, whether it’s criminal or civil. Jurors love celebrities.”

The courtroom was filled almost to capacity Wednesday, though it was quieter than the days during the trial when Depp fans packed the seats. When the verdict was ready, some of the actor’s loyal followers were in attendance, but much of the crowd was composed of curious onlookers.

The reading of the first question from the verdict drew soft gasps, but the crowd remained mostly silent afterward — adhering to Judge Penney Azcarate’s warnings about outbursts.

After the verdict, Heard left the courthouse from the back entrance, while a woman shouted “liar, liar.” Meanwhile, in front of the courthouse, a few hundred people — mainly Depp supporters — gathered amid a mass of reporters to cheer on the actor’s legal team, who addressed the crowd with a brief statement. “We are also most pleased that the trial has resonated for so many people in the public who value truth and justice,” Depp’s lawyer Ben Chew said, adding that it’s time to turn the page and look to the future.

As the lawyers departed, a swarm of fans followed, cheering and chanting: “Johnny for president!” And also “Camille for president!” referring to the actor’s lawyer Camille Vasquez.

A contentious case

For Depp’s claim, the jury weighed seven questions, including whether Heard made or published three statements in the op-ed (which included the headline); if those statements imply or insinuate anything about Depp; and if so, whether they were false and/or made with actual malice. Under Heard’s counterclaim, the jury decided six questions, including whether Waldman made the statements on Depp’s behalf, and whether they were false and/or made with actual malice.

Azcarate ruled Friday that the names of the jurors — two women and five men, plus one female alternate and one male alternate — will remained sealed for a year, given the high-profile nature of the trial.

Heard alleged a pattern of verbal, physical and, at times, sexual abuse from Depp, which she said worsened with his increased alcohol and drug use. She testified to multiple occasions in which he beat her — sometimes leaving her fearing for her life — screamed at her and, on one occasion, sexually assaulted her with a liquor bottle.

Her lawyers presented many photographs of her alleged injuries, of a passed-out Depp and of property destruction he allegedly wrought. They pointed to text messages he wrote to friends in which he described killing her in gruesome detail.

During closing arguments, Heard’s attorney Ben Rottenborn stressed that it doesn’t matter whether the former spouses abused each other or whether Depp abused Heard multiple times — all that matters is whether there was a single instance of Depp abusing Heard.

Depp, meanwhile, maintained that she was abusive toward him and that her allegations amounted to a “hoax.” His team played audio recordings in which Heard insults him, taunts him and discusses hitting him. His lawyers pointed both to a lack of witnesses who saw Depp hit Heard and a lack of medical records detailing any injuries.

His team attempted to paint Heard as vindictive, arguing that she purposely destroyed his career with abuse allegations. Vasquez said the actor enraged Heard by seeking a divorce in May 2016, after one year of marriage. “She didn’t just want a divorce. She wanted to ruin him,” Vasquez said during closing arguments.

Wednesday’s outcome contradicts the results of a similar case in United Kingdom, in which Depp sued the Sun tabloid for calling him a “wife beater.” In that country, libel law has traditionally been more favorable to plaintiffs, even leading to “libel tourism.” While Heard was not named in the British lawsuit, she did testify over several days, and a judge ultimately ruled the allegations against Depp were “substantially true,” writing in a ruling that “the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard.” By contrast, the outcome of Depp’s American trial was decided by a jury, not a judge. Depp appealed the U.K. decision and lost.

“I believe Johnny’s attorneys succeeded in getting the jury to overlook the key issue of Freedom of Speech and ignore evidence that was so conclusive that we won in the UK,” Heard said in her statement on Wednesday. “I’m sad I lost this case. But I am sadder still that I seem to have lost a right I thought I had as an American — to speak freely and openly.”

Jill Huntley Taylor, a legal analyst who owns Taylor Trial Consulting, suggested that Heard may have hurt her case by making it more about the abuse allegations rather than the op-ed itself. “She took on a huge burden,” Taylor said. “She had nothing she needed to prove in his case against her.”

Not only did that potentially complicate “simple” legal claims Depp’s team brought, it also called into question her credibility and likability — rather than the legal claims — and made her testimony much more important than it may have been.

“She turned a case about defamation into a case about abuse,” Taylor said.

During closing arguments on Friday, attorneys from both sides suggested the trial had much more far reaching implications than which celebrity should prevail. Heard’s team argued that the future of the #MeToo movement was at stake in the trial, while Depp’s team framed the trial as a First Amendment issue.

Heard’s attorneys had argued that the case — verdict aside — would resonate for years to come.

“Think about the message that Mr. Depp and his attorneys are sending to Amber, and by extension, every victim of domestic abuse everywhere: If you didn’t take pictures, it didn’t happen,” Rottenborn said. “If you did take pictures, they’re fake. If you didn’t tell your friends, you’re lying. If you did tell your friends, they’re part of the hoax.”

University of Louisville law professor Jamie R. Abrams agreed, pointing out that “watching this are young people who are going to be a victim of sexual assault on their college campus and are going to be even more worried about coming forward with their claims than they would have been even before the #MeToo movement began.”

Abrams has already been contacted by real people who faced defamation lawsuits for publicly discussing being sexually assaulted. The legal maneuver, which Abrams calls a “hatchet” and a “legal slammed door,” could add a tremendous burden on anyone alleging assault, she said. Even if the lawsuit is thrown out, fees could amass. For victims, it could be “a $30,000 cost to tell their story.”

It’s already “happening throughout the country,” Abrams said. “Ordinary people in Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana are going to keep their stories silent.”

A social-media storm

Much of the trial played out on social media, where Depp fans dominated by using a few specific hashtags to voice support for the actor and to hurl insults at Heard. The most popular hashtag, #JusticeforJohnnyDepp, has received more than 19 billion views on TikTok. Meanwhile, the roughly 69 million videos tagged #JusticeforAmberHeard are negative toward Heard. Many of these videos are supercuts from trial footage, edited to make Heard’s accusations appear unfounded.

In the United States, already deeply divided on politics, the trial served as another cultural battleground. After the rendering of the verdict, the official Twitter account belonging to Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee tweeted a GIF of Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, standing triumphantly on his ship.

“This trial has become a media circus, and it’s perhaps the first real media circus of the social media TikTok age. We’ve now seen what a high-profile celebrity trial looks like on social media, and it’s not pretty,” said Matthew Belloni, the former editor of the Hollywood Reporter and founder-partner of Puck. He pointed out that it was so inescapable, he doesn’t “believe it was possible for these jurors to avoid seeing this social media stuff during the trial.”

At the courthouse, onlookers began camping overnight in hopes of receiving one of 100 admissions into the courtroom. Depp’s fans would wave supportive signs, cheer and wave as he came and went from the back entrance; they would boo and jeer Heard.

The two actors originally met around 2008 or 2009 when Depp cast Heard in “The Rum Diary,” based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson, and began a whirlwind romance as they promoted the film a couple years later. Depp said he thought of her as the “perfect partner,” and Heard described their relationship as “a dream. It felt like absolute magic.”

In 2012, about a year after their courtship began, Depp resumed heavy drinking and drug use, according to Heard. And, as many testified, the two began fighting constantly. Heard said Depp began hitting her. They married in February 2015, but in May 2016, Heard filed for divorce and a restraining order.

Heard — who moved to Los Angeles as a teenager in the early 2000s to seek acting work — broke out in 2017′s superhero film “Justice League” playing an underwater princess named Mera.

Depp became a teen idol in the late 1980s after being cast in the Fox TV series “21 Jump Street,” and played a string of eccentric characters in Tim Burton films such as the titular “Edward Scissorhands” and Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He found global fame in 2003, when he first played Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, earning his first of three Academy Award nominations.

His career has been on a downward trajectory during the past decade, following a string of critically dismissed box-office bombs such as “Mortdecai” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” — which he has blamed on Heard’s allegations while the defense points to his on his alcohol and drug use as the cause.

Belloni said this isn’t necessarily the end of either Depp’s or Heard’s Hollywood careers, though they will likely stall in the short term. “People have short memories, and I’ve already heard from a couple of producers who say they would be open to casting them. … I don’t think either will work in a studio movie for a while, but never say never,” he said.

“It is possible to come back from a bout of negative notoriety,” Belloni said.

Helena Andrews-Dyer, Bethonie Butler, Ashley Fetters Maloy, Elahe Izadi and Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.