A jury on Wednesday awarded Johnny Depp more than US$10-million in his libel lawsuit against ex-wife Amber Heard, vindicating his stance that Ms. Heard fabricated claims that she was abused by Mr. Depp before and during their brief marriage.
The jury also found in favour of Ms. Heard, who said she was defamed by Mr. Depp’s lawyer when he called her abuse allegations a hoax. The jury awarded her US$2-million in damages.
The verdicts bring an end to a televised trial that Mr. Depp had hoped would help restore his reputation, though it turned into a spectacle of a vicious marriage. Throughout the trial, fans – overwhelmingly on Mr. Depp’s side – lined up overnight for coveted courtroom seats. Spectators who couldn’t get in gathered on the street to cheer Mr. Depp and jeer Ms. Heard whenever they appeared outside.
Ms. Heard, who was stoic in the courtroom as the verdict was read, said she was heartbroken.
“I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women. It’s a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously,” she said in a statement posted on her Twitter account.
Mr. Depp, who was not in court Wednesday, said “the jury gave me my life back. I am truly humbled.”
“I hope that my quest to have the truth be told will have helped others, men or women, who have found themselves in my situation, and that those supporting them never give up,” he said in a statement posted to Instagram.
Mr. Depp had sued Ms. Heard for libel in Fairfax County Circuit Court over a December, 2018, op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post describing herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” His lawyers said he was defamed by the article even though it never mentioned his name.
The jury found in Mr. Depp’s favour on all three of his claims relating to specific statements in the 2018 piece.
In evaluating Ms. Heard’s counterclaims, jurors considered three statements by a lawyer for Mr. Depp who called her allegations a hoax. They found she was defamed by one of them, in which the lawyer claimed that she and friends “spilled a little wine and roughed the place up, got their stories straight,” and called police.
The jury found Mr. Depp should receive US$10-million in compensatory damages and US$5-million in punitive damages, but the judge said state law caps punitive damages at US$350,000, meaning Mr. Depp was awarded US$10.35-million.
While the case was ostensibly about libel, most of the testimony focused on whether Ms. Heard had been physically and sexually abused, as she claimed. Ms. Heard enumerated more than a dozen alleged assaults, including a fight in Australia – where Mr. Depp was shooting a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel – in which Mr. Depp lost the tip of his middle finger and Ms. Heard said she was sexually assaulted with a liquor bottle.
Mr. Depp said he never hit Ms. Heard and that she was the abuser, though Ms. Heard’s attorneys highlighted years-old text messages Mr. Depp sent apologizing to Ms. Heard for his behaviour as well as profane texts he sent to a friend in which Mr. Depp said he wanted to kill Ms. Heard and defile her dead body.
In some ways, the trial was a replay of a lawsuit Mr. Depp filed in the United Kingdom against a British tabloid after he was described as a “wife beater.” The judge in that case ruled in the newspaper’s favour after finding that Ms. Heard was telling the truth in her descriptions of abuse.
In the Virginia case, Mr. Depp had to prove not only that he never assaulted Ms. Heard, but that Ms. Heard’s article – which focused primarily on public policy related to domestic violence – defamed him. He also had to prove that Ms. Heard wrote the article with actual malice. And to claim damages he had to prove that her article caused the damage to his reputation as opposed to any number of articles before and after Ms. Heard’s piece that detailed the allegations against him.
The case captivated millions through its gavel-to-gavel television coverage and impassioned followers on social media who dissected everything from the actors’ mannerisms to the possible symbolism of what they were wearing. Both performers emerge from the trial with reputations in tatters with unclear prospects for their careers.
Eric Rose, a crisis management and communications expert in Los Angeles, called the trial a “classic murder-suicide.”
“From a reputation management perspective, there can be no winners,” he said. “They’ve bloodied each other up. It becomes more difficult now for studios to hire either actor because you’re potentially alienating a large segment of your audience who may not like the fact that you have retained either Johnny or Amber for a specific project because feelings are so strong now.”
Mr. Depp, a three-time best actor Oscar nominee, had until recent years been a bankable star. His turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film helped turn it into a global franchise, but he’s lost that role. He was also replaced as the title character in the third Fantastic Beasts spinoff film, The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Despite testimony at the trial that he could be violent, abusive and out of control, Mr. Depp received a standing ovation Tuesday night in London after performing for about 40 minutes with Jeff Beck at the Royal Albert Hall.
Ms. Heard’s acting career has been more modest, and her only two upcoming roles are in a small film and the upcoming Aquaman sequel due out next year.
Mr. Depp’s lawyers fought to keep the case in Virginia, in part because state law provided some legal advantages compared with California, where the two reside. A judge ruled that Virginia was an acceptable forum for the case because The Washington Post’s printing presses and online servers are in the county.
The Associated Press
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