After less than three days of deliberation, the seven-person panel ruled that the Aquaman star defamed Depp in a late 2018 Washington Post op-ed. In the piece, Heard described herself as the “public face of domestic abuse,” more than two years after she accused Depp of physical abuse and obtained a restraining order against him.
Depp was seeking $50 million in damages, but the jury has awarded him $15 million — $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. However, Judge Penney Azcarate quickly reduced the punitive damages figure to $350,000, the maximum allowed in the state, which makes Depp’s total haul around $10.4 million.
The jury of five men and two women did rule for Heard in one of her claims, that she was defamed when Depp’s attorney Adam Waldman said in an interview that she and her friends “set” the actor up with “an ambush, a hoax” on the night of an argument between the couple in May 2016. The jury awarded Heard $2 million in compensatory damages and no punitive damages.
Having been in the UK touring with pal Jeff Beck up until Tuesday night, Depp was not in the courtroom Wednesday when the verdict was read out. He said in a statement, “The jury gave me my life back. I am truly humbled.”
Representatives for the actor said earlier today he would be watching from Britain when the verdict in the civil case was read out. After the verdict was read and the jury left the room, his legal team gave each other hugs.
“Today’s verdict confirms what we have said from the beginning — that the claims against Johnny Depp are defamatory and unsupported by any evidence,” Camille Vasquez, one of Depp’s attorneys, told reporters afterward. Benjamin Chew, another of his attorneys, said that they were “pleased that the trial has resonated for so many people in the public who value truth and justice.”
As the verdicts were read, Heard stared down, appearing somber, and looking up only as the jurors were polled. She quickly left the courtroom after the jury departed, with her attorneys close behind. Shortly afterward, she released a statement.
“I’m heartbroken that the mountain of evidence still was not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence, and sway of my ex-husband,” she said.
Outside of the Fairfax County courthouse, some of Depp’s fans cheered as they got news of the verdicts. The televised trial became a sensation for streaming sites like Law & Crime, which carried complete coverage of testimony, while it consistently trended on social media, mainly with comments in favor of Depp.
Before the verdict was read out, the judge had attorneys from both sides approach to discuss the fact that the jury initially did not specify damages on their verdict form. The jury were sent out of the courtroom to put in a figure of at least $1, the judge instructed them, which means at that point the lawyers and Heard knew who had won.
The ACLU-drafted op-ed three and a half years ago in the Jeff Bezos-owned broadsheet never mentioned Depp by name, but the actor insisted it was about him. Depp also said that the 2018 article “devastated” his career. The past Oscar nominee additionally declared that in fact he was the one abused in the relationship with Heard, not the other way around. The couple’s 2016 divorce agreement forbid the actor from suing Heard over allegations she made back then.
The case was filed in Virginia because of the Post is distributed in the state, but Depp did not name the publication as a defendant. At the time the lawsuit was filed, Virginia was regarded as slightly more favorable to plaintiffs in defamation cases.
Repeatedly unsuccessful in getting the March 2019-filed lawsuit dismissed or moved to another jurisdiction, Heard countersued Depp in the summer of 2020 for $100 million. The countersuit was based on comments her ex-husband’s former lawyer and right-hand man Waldman made calling Heard’s claims of abuse, among other things, a “hoax” and “fake.” That action came months before Depp’s UK libel case against the Rupert Murdoch-owned The Sun tabloid for calling him a “wife beater” failed dramatically in November 2020. The actor failed last year to get an appeal in that UK libel suit.
Both Depp’s 2019 suit and Heard’s 2020 countersuit were before the jury. The jurors formally began their deliberations Friday after closing arguments were presented, and they posed one question to the judge Tuesday having to do with how they should weigh the headline of the online version of Heard’s op-ed: “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.”
Even though the case was about defamation, the trial took on the tone of a second divorce proceeding for the couple, who were actually divorced in Los Angeles in 2016. As sensational details poured out during testimony — tales of drug use, trips on the Orient Express, fights on private planes and at Depp’s private island — they often overshadowed the First Amendment issues at stake.
Soon after the verdicts, there was an avalanche of commentary on the verdict’s implications — if there are any. On CNN, attorney Areva Martin said that the verdict “sets women back” and will have a “chilling effect” on women willing to come forward with allegations of domestic abuse. But in the weeks that the trial played out, other commentators cautioned against reading too much into the proceedings, which gave the public a glimpse into the rarefied world of celebrity.
Some First Amendment scholars were skeptical that the trial will have a significant impact on defamation law.
Roy Gutterman, professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, said in a statement, “The weeks of testimony were at times lurid and even entertaining, but I’m not sure it adequately proved anything beyond the fact that two movie stars had an extremely volatile relationship.”
It is unclear if Heard plans to appeal the verdict or seek other forms of legal redress. What is clear is that under an order from Azcarate, the names of the jurors will not be released by the state of Virginia for at least a year. Jurors can still speak out if they so choose.