FAIRFAX, Va. – After a six-week trial, a civil jury in Virginia spent about 12 hours over three days deliberating defamation claims by Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard. The jury on Wednesday afternoon awarded Depp more than $10 million in damages, while finding that Heard's counterclaim had merits too, awarding her $2 million in damages.
The trial featured lurid testimony with explicit details about the movie stars' short and volatile marriage. But what was the case really about? And what did the jury need to decide?:
Depp filed a $50 million defamation suit against Heard, alleging that a 2018 op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post damaged his reputation and hurt his career. In the article, Heard described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.” Depp was not mentioned by name in the article, but his lawyers argued that it was clear she was referring to Depp, given that she had publicly accused him of domestic violence during their 2016 divorce proceedings. Heard's lawyers said most of the article focuses on public policy on domestic violence and that she had a First Amendment right to weigh in on that subject. They also maintain that Depp did in fact abuse Heard.
During the trial, Heard described more than a dozen specific instances when she says Depp abused her, including her allegation that he sexually assaulted her with a liquor bottle in an alcohol-fueled rage. Depp denied any physical or sexual abuse, and says Heard concocted the claims to destroy his reputation. He's also claimed that she physically attacked him on multiple occasions.
THE JURY'S JOB
The seven-member jury had to decide if two passages and the headline of the article were defamatory. The jury verdict form gave jurors instructions on how to determine that, including by asking them whether the statements were about Depp, were false and had a defamatory implication about him. Because Depp is a public figure, to find that she committed libel, the jury needed to conclude that Heard acted with “actual malice,” meaning that she either knew what she wrote was false or that she acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
The jury ruled in favor of Depp on all three counts, finding that she had indeed acted with actual malice. Heard's lawyers told the jury Depp's libel claim had to fail if Heard suffered even a single incident of abuse.
Heard filed a $100 million counterclaim against Depp after his former lawyer called her allegations a hoax. The counterclaim received less attention during the trial, but Heard's lawyer told jurors it would provide an avenue for the jury to compensate Heard for the abuse Depp inflicted on her by orchestrating a smear campaign after they split up.
The jury verdict form asked the jury to decide if Depp's former attorney, acting as an agent for Depp, made or published three statements that were about Heard, were false and were seen by someone other than Heard. The jury also had to decide if Depp's attorney made the statements with actual malice. The jurors found Heard was defamed by one of those statements, 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.