After a six-week trial, a civil jury in Virginia deliberated for about 12 hours on the accusations of defamation of Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard. The jury on Wednesday afternoon awarded Depp more than $10 million in damages, though it also found merit in Heard’s counterclaim, awarding him $2 million in damages.
The trial included sordid testimony with explicit details of the movie stars’ brief and volatile marriage. But what was the case really about, and what did the jury need to decide?
Depp filed a $50 million defamation lawsuit against Heard, alleging that an op-ed she wrote, published in 2018 in the Washington PostIt damaged his reputation and hurt his career. In the article, Heard described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” He did not mention Depp by name, but his lawyers argued that it was clear he was referring to the actor, given that he had publicly accused him of domestic violence during their 2016 divorce proceedings. Heard’s lawyers said most of the article was focuses on public policy on domestic violence and that she had the right granted by freedom of expression to express an opinion on that subject. They also maintain that Depp did in fact abuse Heard.
Actress Amber Heard waits before the verdict is read at the Circuit Court in Fairfax County, Virginia. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)
General view of the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)
Heard looks at her lawyer before the verdict is read. (Evelyn Hockstein)
Actress Amber Heard hugs her attorney Elaine Bredehoft as Benjamin Rottenborn looks on after the verdict was read. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)
Johnny Depp’s attorney, Camille Vasquez, walks over to hug her colleague, Benjamin Chew, as they celebrate after the verdict was read, where the jury awarded the actor $15 million in damages. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)
Members of Johnny Depp’s legal team embrace after the verdict is read, in which he vindicates his position that Heard fabricated claims that Depp abused her before and during their brief marriage. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)
Actress Amber Heard hugs her attorney Benjamin Rottenborn after the verdict was read, where the jury awarded her $2 million, after the jury found Depp liable on one of three counts of defamation in Heard’s countersuit. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN)
allegations of abuse
During the trial, Heard outlined more than a dozen specific cases in which she says Depp abused her, including her allegation that he sexually assaulted her with a liquor bottle in a fit of alcohol-fueled rage. Depp has denied any physical or sexual abuse and says Heard made up her claims to destroy her reputation. She also claimed that she physically attacked him on multiple occasions.
The work of the jury
The seven-member jury had to decide whether two excerpts from the article and the headline were defamatory. The jury’s verdict form gave them instructions on how to determine that, including a question about whether the statements about Depp were false and had a defamatory implication about him. Because Depp is a public figure, to find that Heard had defamed him, the jury had to conclude that Heard acted with “actual malice,” meaning that she knew what she had written was false or that she acted with reckless disregard. For the truth.
The jury found in favor of Depp on all three counts, finding that Heard acted with malice. Heard’s lawyers had told the jury that Depp’s defamation charge should fail if Heard suffered a single incident of abuse.
Heard filed a $100 million countersuit against Depp after a former attorney for the actor called her allegations a hoax. The counterclaim received less attention during the trial, but a lawyer for Heard told the jury that it provided an avenue for them to compensate Heard for the abuse Depp inflicted on her by orchestrating a smear campaign after they broke up.
The jury verdict form asked the jury to decide whether Depp’s former lawyer, acting as Depp’s agent, made or published three statements that were about Heard, that were false, and that were seen by someone other than Heard. The jury also had to decide whether Depp’s lawyer made the statements with true malice. The jury concluded that Heard was defamed by one of her statements, in which the attorney claimed that she and some friends had “spilled some wine and messed up the place to get their stories correct,” and called the police. .