For six weeks, the defamation case actor Johnny Depp filed against his ex-wife Amber Heard occupied the nation and offered a rare case of high-profile #MeToo charges and counter-charges, including lurid allegations of physical abuse, which were heard in the public Courtroom spotlight.
On Wednesday, the seven-member jury in Fairfax, Virginia, found that Mr. Depp had been defamed by Ms. Heard when she described herself as a “public figure representing domestic violence” in a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post. Mr. Depp was awarded more than $10 million in damages.
During the trial, Mr Depp had fiercely denied Ms Heard’s allegations that he had repeatedly physically abused her, including beatings and headbutts, and multiple counts of sexual assault. In a statement following the verdict, Mr Depp thanked the jury and said they “gave my life back to me”.
Ms Heard, who was in the courtroom when the verdict was read, later said in a statement that she was “indescribably” disappointed by her finding.
“I am heartbroken that the mountain of evidence was still insufficient to withstand my ex-husband’s disproportionate power, influence and influence,” she said.
Ms Heard did not seem smitten by the fact that the jury also awarded her $2 million in damages and agreed that she had been defamed by a lawyer for Mr Depp in one case. A spokeswoman for Ms Heard, Alafair Hall, said she planned to appeal.
Such cases are often settled out of court, in part to avoid public scrutiny. The bitter allegations and embarrassing details in this case were not only aired in open court, but also in front of cameras that beamed each allegation onto TVs and livestreams, where they were turned into memes and debated on social media.
The 2018 comment Ms Heard wrote never mentioned Mr Depp by name, but argued that it was clearly referring to their marriage, which began in 2015 and broke up just over a year later, and that it was wrong. (Initial drafts of this were made by the American Civil Liberties Union, where Ms. Heard served as an ambassador focusing on women’s rights and gender-based violence.)
The jury agreed, noting that it contained several false statements made with actual malice.
Ms Heard countered, claiming she had been defamed in 2020 when one of Mr Depp’s lawyers at the time dismissed her allegations as a “hoax” in statements to a British tabloid. The jury found that Mr Depp had defamed Ms Heard in one case, when the lawyer accused her of damaging the couple’s penthouse and blamed Mr Depp for it.
The ruling came as a surprise to several legal observers, who noted that a judge in the UK ruled two years ago that there was evidence Mr Depp had repeatedly assaulted Ms Heard. That ruling came in a defamation lawsuit brought by Mr Depp after The Sun, a British tabloid, featured in a headline calling him a “wife beater”. The judge in that case had ruled that the defendants had shown that what they published was “essentially true.”
Ms Heard, 36, maintained throughout the trial that everything written in the comment was true.
The combination of star power, sensational details and courtroom cameras made the trial an internet obsession. Memes and posts attacking Ms. Heard, some by Mr. Depp superfans, circulated online. Ms Heard testified that she had received thousands of death threats since the trial began and called the online mockery “excruciating”.
Ms Heard sometimes broke into sobs on the witness stand and testified more than a dozen times that Mr Depp had been violent towards her. In a key incident in Australia in 2015, Ms Heard said, Mr Depp became “aggressive” after taking the drug MDMA and attacked her, grabbing her by the neck and once sexually assaulting her with an object the woman had. Will definitely belong to a bottle later.
“I look him in the eye and I don’t see him anymore,” Ms. Heard testified. “I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
Mackenna White, a lawyer who advises people on the risks of publishing potentially contested sexual misconduct allegations, said she was concerned Ms Heard’s online ridicule would make some less likely to come forward.
“The complete destruction of Amber Heard will have repercussions,” Ms White said. “If you’re someone who worries about what might happen if you speak up, it could have the same chilling effect that we’ve tried all these years to reverse.”
Others saw the online reaction as a harbinger of what the jury would decide.
“You now have millions of Americans weighing while evidence unfolds in court — you can take that as an indication of how the case is going,” said Imran Ansari, an attorney representing Alan Dershowitz in libel lawsuits involving Virginia Giuffre involved was a victim of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking operation and accused Mr. Dershowitz of involvement, which he denies.
Mr Depp, 58, gave a completely different account of their relationship – and the trip to Australia – in which Ms Heard was the aggressor. Ms. Heard, he testified, was once a friend who seemed “too good to be true” but turned into a partner who taunted him, called him demeaning names, hit him, and threw objects at him.
In Australia, he testified, she threw a handle of vodka that exploded onto his hand and severed his finger. (She denies throwing the bottle at him, saying she only ever hit him in self-defense or in her sister’s defense.)
Johnny Depp’s defamation lawsuit against Amber Heard
In his testimony, Mr. Depp – a major star known for the films he made with director Tim Burton, including ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ – Franchise – attributed the decline of his acting career to allegations by Ms. Heard.
“It’s very strange when one day you’re like Cinderella and then in 0.6 seconds you’re Quasimodo,” Mr. Depp testified. “And I didn’t deserve that.”
Several witnesses summoned by Mr Depp’s lawyers questioned Ms Heard’s reports of violence, including police officers and the actor’s employees, who recalled that Ms Heard sometimes appeared unharmed when she reported bruising.
Others substantiated Mr. Depp’s claims for damage to his reputation, including his agent testifying that the actor lost a $22.5 million deal to reprise his role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise after the release of Ms .to repeat Heard’s comment. (One Disney executive who testified said she had no reason to believe the decision not to cast Mr. Depp was related to the guest commentary.)
Several of Ms. Heard’s witnesses, including her sister and former makeup artist, testified that they saw injuries on Ms. Heard around the time of the reported abuse. The sister, Whitney Henriquez, said she saw Mr Depp actively hit Ms Heard while wearing a cast from his finger injury.
The Virginia proceedings often became a stage for the couple and many of their associates to share some of the most intimate, embarrassing, and often conflicting accounts of their relationship.
Texts from Mr Depp referred to Ms Heard with insults and profanity such as “worthless whore”. An audio recording captured Ms Heard, who Mr Depp called “washed up” and a “joke”, and other recorded arguments in which both seem to agree that they were violent towards one another.
Mr Depp’s drug use and past addiction to opioids were frequently addressed, but his lawyers argued that he never claimed to be a saint – only that he was not an abuser.
“I can’t say I’m embarrassed,” Mr Depp said of the personal information requested in the trial, “because I know I’m doing the right thing.”