Johnny Depp has won his multimillion-dollar US lawsuit against former wife Amber Heard after a Virginia jury ruled a 2018 article published in The Washington Post was defamatory.
He was awarded $15m by the court – comprising $10m compensatory damages and a further $5m in punitive damages.
Depp had sued Heard for $50m (£38.2m) over a first-person article published in The Washington Post in December 2018, in which she referred to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse”.
Heard’s column did not mention Depp by name, but he argued it was an example of “defamation by implication” because parts of the column referred to allegations of abuse she made against him following their break-up in 2016. Heard had issued a counterclaim for $100m (£76.4m) over statements calling her allegations a “hoax” made by her ex-husband’s attorney which were published in Mail Online stories in 2020.
At the end of the six-week trial in Fairfax, Virginia, the actor’s legal team asked the jury “to give Mr Depp his life back”, saying the case was not about money but reputation, and “freeing him from the prison in which he has lived for the last six years”.
In his own closing argument, Heard’s lawyer Ben Rottenborn said the lawsuit was not about Depp’s reputation but was part of an ongoing smear campaign launched by the actor after Heard filed for divorce.
“In Mr Depp’s world, you don’t leave Mr Depp,” he said. “If you do, he will start a campaign of global humiliation against you.”
Mr Rottenborn said it was “ridiculous” that Depp was trying to “fool” the jury into believing he was never once abusive towards Heard.
During six weeks of testimony at Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia, the jury heard from friends – including supermodel Kate Moss – family members, medics, therapists and staff past and present who worked with and spent time with the former couple. Depp and Heard also took the stand twice each themselves, with both spending several days giving differing accounts of their relationship to the jury.
Shocking insights into their huge rows were detailed in court. Aside from the alleged physical violence, claims against Depp included an accusation that he held his dog out of a moving car window and that he painted messages in blood on the wall of a house in Australia after infamously severing his finger. He, in turn, accused Heard of defecating in their bed and faking bleeding injuries using nail polish.
It was a question of who the jury believed.
As the plaintiff, or the person who launched the legal proceedings, Depp was the first of the pair to testify, telling the jury he is “obsessed with the truth” and claiming it was he who was the victim of domestic abuse during his relationship with Heard, not the other way round. He called his ex-wife’s allegations against him “heinous and disturbing”, saying they had “permeated” the entertainment industry and that he hoped the trial would clear his name.
When Heard took the stand, she made several allegations of physical and sexual abuse against Depp, breaking down in tears as she explained some in graphic detail. She told the court her ex-husband had been jealous of her co-stars including Eddie Redmayne, Billy Bob Thornton and James Franco, and that during one incident of alleged abuse she feared for her life.
Franco and tech billionaire Elon Musk, who dated Heard after her relationship with Depp ended, were due to testify during the trial – as was Depp’s friend Paul Bettany – but the high-profile stars were dropped from taking part due to time constraints.
In the opening statements, Depp’s lawyers said Heard was preparing for “the performance of a lifetime” during the hearing, while her legal team said the case would expose the “real” person behind the “fame” and “pirate costumes”.
During the case, a couples therapist told the court that the pair engaged in “mutual abuse”, while two expert psychologists gave differing accounts on whether or not Heard suffered from PTSD as a result of abuse, or in fact had a personality disorder.
A financial expert estimated Depp had suffered lost earnings of about $40m as a result of Heard’s allegations and plenty of his security guards and staff members corroborated his claims that on occasions, his ex-wife was violent towards him.
However, Heard’s witnesses said they saw evidence of physical abuse, with a make-up artist saying she had to cover up a lip injury and the actress’s sister saying she witnessed a fight between the former couple.
Depp and Heard started dating after meeting on the set of the 2011 film The Rum Diary and married in Los Angeles in February 2015. They split up in May 2016, with Heard filing for a restraining order shortly afterwards.
The verdict in the US case comes almost two years after Depp’s first libel trial in the UK, a three-week case against the publisher of The Sun newspaper at the Royal Courts Of Justice in London.
Following the trial in the summer of 2020 – which saw Heard giving evidence as a witness, rather than as the defendant – the judge handed down his ruling a few months later, finding that an article referring to the actor as a “wife beater” was “substantially true”.
Depp asked the Court of Appeal to grant permission for him to challenge the ruling, with the aim of having its findings overturned and a retrial ordered, but the appeal was denied in March 2021.
Since the judgment in the UK case, Depp has been seen at a few industry events and picked up a lifetime achievement award from a major film festival in Spain – and more recently a medal of honour for his contributions to art in Serbia. He is also promoting his work as an artist.
However, film roles appear to have dried up for the former Pirates Of The Caribbean star, with his last movie Minamata, in which he played war photographer Eugene Smith, released in 2020. He will not be a part of a planned sixth Pirates Of The Caribbean film and was also dropped from the Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts 3, with Mads Mikkelsen later replacing him as Gellert Grindelwald.
Heard, who welcomed a baby daughter via surrogate in 2021, starred in Zack Snyder’s Justice League in 2021 and is set to appear in Aquaman 2 in 2023.