Nine keys to Johnny Depp’s victory over Amber Heard

In this analysis, EL PAÍS takes an in-depth look at the jury’s decision, the likelihood it will be appealed and what it means for both parties

Johnny Depp, with his lawyer Camille Vasquez, in the last court session of the trial against Amber Heard.
Johnny Depp, with his lawyer Camille Vasquez, in the last court session of the trial against Amber Heard.STEVE HELBER (AFP)

A seven-person jury reached a verdict on Wednesday in what may be the most-talked-about case since the trial of basketball star O. J. Simpson – the defamation battle between actor Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard.

After an intense six-week trial, which heard allegations of sexual assault and physical abuse, the jury ruled that both parties were guilty of defamation, but not to the same degree. While Heard was sentenced to pay Depp $15 million (€14 million) in damages, Depp must only pay Heard $2 million – a clear win for the Pirates of the Caribbean star. But this is just one element of the much-anticipated verdict. Here is a breakdown of the main keys to the jury’s decision.

1. The verdict

The jury had to decide whether or not six specific statements – three from each side – were defamatory. Depp was suing Heard over statements she made in an op-ed in The Washington Post, in which she claimed she was a victim of abuse. While Heard was suing the actor for comments made by Depp’s former lawyer, who accused the actress of lying.

The jury ruled that all three of Heard’s statements were defamatory, while only one comment from the lawyer was found to have been harmful.

During the trial, the Aquaman star claimed that her ex-husband had struck her and sexually assaulted her. The jury did not rule on whether or not this happened, but given that they found her statements to be defamatory, it can be inferred that they did not believe her testimony i.e. that she was not a victim of abuse. This gives Depp a moral victory, as well as $15 million in damages.

2. The sentence format

A court sentence must typically establish the facts and the legal basis for a verdict. But this was not the case for the Depp-Heard defamation battle as it was a civil suit, not a criminal trial. In order to reach a verdict, the jury was handed a special form and asked to answer a series of “yes” or “no” questions. If the jurors found a statement to be defamatory, they then had to specify how much compensatory and punitive damages to award.

Elaine Bredehoft, Amber Heard's lawyer, hugs the actress following the verdict.
Elaine Bredehoft, Amber Heard's lawyer, hugs the actress following the verdict.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (AP)

3. Amber Heard’s statements

The jury ruled that all three statements made by Heard in her op-ed were false and harmed Depp, meaning they were defamatory. These were the statements:

- “I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.”

- “Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”

- “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

Despite the fact that Heard’s article did not mention Depp by name, the jury responded “yes” to the following three questions: “The statement was about Mr. Depp,” “The statement was false” and “The statement has a defamatory implication about Mr. Depp.”

4. Johnny Depp’s statements

With respect to Heard’s claim, the lawsuit focused on statements made by Depp’s former lawyer Adam Waldman in The Daily Mail. Although the actor did not make the comments, Heard argued that the lawyer said them on his behalf.

Of the three statements, this was the only one found to be defamatory:

- “Quite simply this was an ambush, a hoax. They set Mr. Depp up by calling the cops but the first attempt didn’t do the trick. The officers came to the penthouses, thoroughly searched and interviewed, and left after seeing no damage to face or property. So Amber and her friends spilled a little wine and roughed the place up, got their stories straight under the direction of a lawyer and publicists, and then placed a second call to 911.” (The Daily Mail, April 27, 2020).

Camille Vasquez and Benjamin Chew, Jonny Depp's attorneys, celebrate his victory.
Camille Vasquez and Benjamin Chew, Jonny Depp's attorneys, celebrate his victory.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (AP)

The jurors ruled that the other two did not were not defamatory:

- “Amber Heard and her friends in the media use fake sexual violence allegations as both a sword and a shield, depending on their needs. They have selected some of her sexual violence hoax ‘facts’ as the sword, inflicting them on the public and Mr. Depp.” (The Daily Mail, April 8, 2020).

- “[W]e have reached the beginning of the end of Ms. Heard’s abuse hoax against Johnny Depp.”(The Daily Mail, April 27, 2020).

In other words, the jury did not consider it defamatory to claim that Heard had made “fake” and “hoax” accusations about being the victim of sexual abuse. But it did think it was defamatory to say that she and her friends had “roughed up” a place to make it appear like a scene of violence.

5. Damages

Depp’s defamation lawsuit demanded $50 million (€47 million) in compensation. Heard countersued for $100 million (€93 million), although her lawyer stated this amount was only intended to “send a message” to the actor.

In both cases, the jury awarded a lower amount. Heard was sentenced to pay Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and another $5 million in punitive damages. However, legislation in the state of Virginia, where the trial was held, limits punitive damages to $350,000. As a result, the judge reduced the damages to a total of $10.35 million.

Depp, meanwhile, must pay Heard $2 million in compensatory damages. The jury did not award her any punitive damages, meaning the jury did not think the actor should be punished. This is another moral victory for Depp. Apparently, instead of putting a zero in the box for punitive damages, the jury left it blank, which caused a tense, minutes-long delay in the reading of the verdict.

Johnny Depp (r) on stage at a Jeff Beck concert in London.
Johnny Depp (r) on stage at a Jeff Beck concert in London.DPA vía Europa Press (Europa Press)

6. Johnny Depp's reaction

Johnny Depp was not present in court when the verdict was read. He was in the United Kingdom. In the last few days, he has been performing with singer Jeff Beck at his concerts in Sheffield and London. But as soon as he learned of the verdict, he published a statement on his Instagram account:

“Six years ago, my life, the lives of my children, the lives of those closest to me, and also, the lives of the people, who for many, many years have supported and believed in me were forever changed.

All in the blink of an eye.

False, very serious and criminal allegations were levied at me via the media, which triggered an endless barrage of hateful content, although no charges were ever brought against me. It had already traveled around the world twice within a nanosecond and it had a seismic impact on my life and my career.

And six years later, the jury gave me my life back. I am truly humbled.

My decision to pursue this case, knowing very well the height of the legal hurdles I would be facing and the inevitable, worldwide spectacle into my life, was only made after considerable thought.

From the beginning, the goal of bringing this case was to reveal the truth, regardless of the outcome. Speaking the truth was something that I owed to my children and to all those who have remained steadfast in their support of me. I feel at peace knowing that I have finally accomplished that

I am, and have been, overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and the colossal support and kindness from around the world. 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. I also hope that the position will now return to innocent until proven guilty, both within the courts and in the media.

I wish to acknowledge the noble work of the Judge, the jurors, the court staff and the Sheriffs who have sacrificed their own time to get to this point, and to my diligent and unwavering legal team who did an extraordinary job in helping me to share the truth.

The best is yet to come and a new chapter has finally begun.

Veritas numquam perit.

Truth never perishes.”

Amber Heard at the Fairfax courthouse.
Amber Heard at the Fairfax courthouse.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (AP)

7. Amber Heard's reaction

Amber Heard was present in the courtroom. She listened to the verdict with her head down, looking sad and serious as she tried to contain her emotions. Following the verdict, she posted a statement on Twitter:

“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.

I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women. It is a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously.

“The disappointment I feel today is beyond words. I am heartbroken that the mountain of evidence still was not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence and sway of my ex-husband.

I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women. It is a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously.

I believe Johnyy0s attorneys succeeded in getting the jury to overlook the key issue of Freedom of Speech and ignore evidence that was so conclusive that we won in the UK.

I’m sad I lost this case. But I am sadder still that I seem to have lost a right I thought I had as an American – to speak freely and openly.”

8. Likelihood of appeal

A spokesperson for Heard indicated on Wednesday that she plans to appeal the verdict before the Supreme Court of Virginia. Freedom of expression will continue to be Heard’s main legal argument. Although this argument did not sway a jury, it may be more effective with a panel of judges.

The trial took place in Fairfax County District court in Virginia. This location was chosen because The Washington Post is printed there and because the newspaper also has its digital servers in the town. But some lawyers argue that a court could conclude that the trial should not have taken place in Virginia, given that both Heard and Depp are based in California. In an extreme scenario, the trial may be repeated in California.

9. Trial by social media

As the jury followed the trial in Fairfax, footage from the courtroom was broadcast around the world. Even before the trial began, social media had already ruled in favor of Johnny Depp. Day after day, crowds of Johnny Depp fans gathered outside the courtroom to cheer the actor on, and boo Heard, who has also been vilified and humiliated on social media. The actress said she has even received numerous death threats.

Johnny Depp fans celebrate the verdict on Wednesday at the gates of the Fairfax courthouse.
Johnny Depp fans celebrate the verdict on Wednesday at the gates of the Fairfax courthouse.CRAIG HUDSON (AP)

The implications of the verdict and the trial by social media are of concern to the feminist movement. Heard’s defeat, regardless of whether her claims were real or fabricated, will make it difficult for other women to come forward. On the other hand, Depp’s huge support base indicates that the public is not willing to suspend the presumption of innocence.

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