For six weeks, the defamation case that the actor Johnny Depp filed against his ex-wife Amber Heard transfixed the nation, offering a rare instance of high-profile #MeToo charges and countercharges, including lurid accusations of physical abuse, being hashed out in the public spotlight of a courtroom.
On Wednesday, the seven-person jury in Fairfax, Va., Found that Mr. Depp had been defamed by Ms. Heard when she described herself in a 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Mr. Depp was awarded more than $ 10 million in damages.
During the trial Mr. Depp had fiercely denied Ms. Heard’s accusations that he had subjected her to repeated physical abuse that included punching and head-butting and several instances of sexual assault. In a statement after the verdict Mr. Depp thanked the jury, saying that it “gave me my life back.”
Ms. Heard, who was in the courtroom as the verdict was read, said in a statement afterward that she was disappointed “beyond words” by their finding.
“I’m heartbroken that the mountain of evidence was still not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence, and sway of my ex-husband,” she said.
Ms. Heard did not seem buoyed by the fact that the jury also awarded her $ 2 million in damages, agreeing that she had been defamed in one instance by a lawyer for Mr. Depp. 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 charges and embarrassing details in this case were aired not only in open court, but also before cameras that beamed every accusation onto televisions and livestreams, where they were turned into memes and debated on social media.
The 2018 op-ed that Ms. Heard wrote never mentioned Mr. Depp by name, but he argued that it clearly referred to their marriage, which began in 2015 and fell apart just over a year later, and that it was false. (Early drafts of it were prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union, where Ms. Heard was an ambassador with a focus on women’s rights and gender-based violence.)
The jury agreed, and found that it contained several statements that were false, and were made with actual malice.
Ms. Heard countersued, claiming that she had been defamed in 2020 when one of Mr. Depp’s lawyers at the time had dismissed her accusations as a “hoax” in statements to a British tabloid. The jury found that Mr. Depp had defamed Ms. Heard in one instance, when the lawyer accused her of damaging the couple’s penthouse and blaming it on Mr. Depp.
The verdict came as a surprise to several legal observers, who noted that a judge in Britain had ruled two years ago that there was evidence that Mr. Depp had repeatedly assaulted Ms. Heard. That ruling came in a libel suit that Mr. Depp had filed after The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, called him a “wife beater” in a headline. The judge in that case had ruled that the defenders had shown that what they published was “substantially true.”
Ms. Heard, 36, maintained throughout the trial that everything written in the op-ed was true.
The combination of star power, sensational details and cameras in the courtroom turned the trial into an internet obsession. Memes and posts attacking Ms. Heard, some created by superfans of Mr. Depp, proliferated online. Ms. Heard testified that she had received thousands of death threats since the start of the trial and called the online mockery “agonizing.”
Sometimes breaking into sobs on the stand, Ms. Heard testified about more than a dozen times that, she said, Mr. Depp was violent towards her. In a key incident in Australia in 2015, Ms. Heard said, Mr. Depp became “belligerent” after taking the drug MDMA and attacked her, grabbing her by the neck and, at one point, sexually assaulting her with an object that Ms. Heard later determined to be a bottle.
“I’m looking in his eyes and I don’t see him anymore,” Ms. Heard testified. “I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
Mackenna White, a lawyer who counsels people as to the risks of publishing potentially contested accusations of sexual misconduct, said she worried that the online mockery of Ms. Heard would make some less likely to come forward.
“The absolute destruction of Amber Heard is going to have an impact,” Ms. White said. “If you’re someone who’s worried about what could happen if you speak out, this could have the same chilling effect that we’ve been trying to reverse all these years.”
Others saw the online reaction as a harbinger of what the jury would decide.
“You have now millions of Americans weighing in as evidence unfolds in court – you can take that as an indication of how the case is going,” said Imran Ansari, a lawyer representing Alan Dershowitz in defamation suits involving Virginia Giuffre, who said she was a victim of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking operation and accused Mr. Dershowitz of being part of it, which he denies.
Mr. Depp, 58, gave a vastly different account of their relationship – and of the trip to Australia – in which Ms. Heard was the aggressor. Ms. Heard, he testified, had once been a girlfriend who seemed “too good to be true,” but turned into a partner who would taunt him, call him demeaning names, punch him and throw objects at him.
In Australia, he testified, she threw a handle of vodka that exploded on his hand and severed his finger. (She denies throwing the bottle at him and said she only ever hit him in self-defense or in defense of her sister.)
Johnny Depp’s Libel Case Against Amber Heard
In the courtroom. A defamation trial involving formerly married actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard just concluded in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia. Here is what to know about the case:
In his testimony, Mr. Depp – a major star known for the films he made with director Tim Burton, including “Edward Scissorhands,” as well as for his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise – attributed the decline of his acting career to Ms. Heard’s accusations.
“It’s very strange when one day you’re Cinderella, so to speak, and then in 0.6 seconds you’re Quasimodo,” Depp testified. “And I didn’t deserve that.”
Several witnesses called by Mr. Depp’s lawyers challenged Ms. Heard’s accounts of violence, including police officers and employees of the actor who recalled that Ms. Heard appeared uninjured at times when she reported to have had bruises.
Others bolstered Mr. Depp’s claim of reputational damage, including his agent, who testified that the actor had lost a $ 22.5 million deal to reprise his role in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise after Ms. Heard’s op-ed was published. (A Disney production executive who testified said she had no reason to believe the decision to not cast Mr. Depp was related to the op-ed.)
Several of Ms. Heard’s witnesses, including her sister and former makeup artist, testified to seeing injuries on Ms. Heard around the time of reported abuse. The sister, Whitney Henriquez, said she saw Mr. Depp actively hitting Ms. Heard while wearing a cast from his finger injury.
The proceedings in Virginia often became a stage where the couple, and many of their associates, recounted some of the most intimate, embarrassing and often contradictory accounts of their relationship.
Texts from Mr. Depp referred to Ms. Heard using insults and obscenities like “worthless hooker.” An audio recording captured Ms. Heard calling Mr. Depp “washed up” and a “joke” and other recorded arguments in which both seem to agree that they were violent with each other.
Mr. Depp’s drug use and past addiction to opioids were brought up frequently, but his lawyers argued that he never claimed to be a saint – just that he wasn’t an abuser.
“I can’t say I’m embarrassed,” Depp said of the personal disclosures required in the trial, “because I know I’m doing the right thing.”