Amber Heard faces a tough challenge as she seeks to overturn the decision


FALLS CHURCH, Virginia –

The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard libel lawsuit, which sparked intense interest for two months earlier this year as an unrestricted, live-streamed soap opera featuring one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, won’t not fade quietly.

Earlier this month, Heard’s attorneys filed a 51-page motion asking Judge Penney Azcarate to overturn the jury’s verdict, which awarded Depp $10 million and Heard $2 million over allegations of competing defamation.

The motion cites several reasons why the verdict is untenable, from the surprising decision to declare both sides victorious in one measure or another, to a bizarre case of mistaken identity with one of the jurors.

Among the issues raised:


Depp sued for $25 million in Fairfax County after Heard wrote a 2018 Washington Post op-ed on domestic violence in which she called herself a « public figure representing domestic violence. » The article never mentioned Depp by name, but his lawyers said several passages in the article implicitly defamed him by referring to high-profile abuse allegations she made in 2016 when she was asking for a divorce.

Heard then filed a counterclaim for $50 million, also for defamation. By the time the case went to trial, his counterclaim had been reduced to a few statements made by one of Depp’s attorneys, who called Heard’s abuse allegations a hoax.

The jury awarded $15 million to Depp and $2 million to Heard for his counterclaim. The $15 million judgment was reduced to $10.35 million because Virginia law caps punitive damages at $350,000.

Lawyers for Heard say in court papers that the $10 million verdict is unsupported by the facts and appears to demonstrate that jurors failed to focus on the fallout from the 2018 op-ed – as they were meant to – and instead simply looked broadly at the damage to Depp’s reputation as a result of the alleged abuse.

Depp’s attorneys, however, say the damages are supported by testimony from his agent and others. They say the precedents cited by Heard’s team to support their arguments « date back decades and none involve a high-profile international celebrity. »

Steve Cochran, a Virginia civilian attorney who was appointed by a judge as a neutral conciliator in the case to try to minimize pretrial discovery conflicts, said he always believed the weakest link in Depp’s case was damages, given evidence that the actor’s reputation had been ruined in Hollywood long before the editorial was published. Still, he said he was skeptical of Heard’s ability to overturn the verdict.

Scott Surovell, a lawyer and Democratic state senator who practices law in Fairfax, also said he saw no reason to reverse the damages.

« What the judge is looking for (…) is that the verdict was sufficiently substantiated at trial and was not based on speculation or conjecture. (Depp) makes a lot of money from the films. That does not appear to me that the damages were based on speculation or conjecture, but on evidence, » he said.


Heard’s attorneys argue that the verdicts for Depp on the one hand and Heard on the other are fundamentally absurd.

“The dueling jury verdicts are inconsistent and irreconcilable,” his attorneys wrote.

Depp’s attorneys, however, say the verdict form used by jurors allowed them to accurately articulate statements they deemed to be defamatory. When you look at individual statements, they say, dueling verdicts make sense.

Jeremiah Denton III, a Virginia Beach attorney with experience in libel cases, said he doesn’t view the verdicts as irreconcilable. Rather, he said, the reward most at risk is the $2 million awarded to Heard, as he said it was legally questionable whether Depp could be held liable for statements made by his lawyer.

« I don’t understand why the judge even allowed this issue to go to the jury, » he said.


One of the more unusual elements of the discussion is a case of apparent mistaken identity with one of the jurors. According to court documents, a 77-year-old county resident received a summons for the trial. But the man’s son, who has the same name and lives at the same address, answered the summons and served in his place.

Heard’s attorneys say Virginia law is strict regarding the identity of jurors and that the case of mistaken identity is grounds for a mistrial. They have presented no evidence that the 52-year-old son, identified in court documents only as Juror No. 15, deliberately or insidiously sought to replace his father, but they argue that possibility should not be discounted.

“The Court cannot assume, as Mr. Depp asks, that Juror 15’s seemingly improper service was an innocent mistake. This could have been an intentional attempt to serve on the jury in a high-profile case,” Heard’s attorneys wrote.

Paul Bekman, a Baltimore attorney who has also tried cases in Virginia, said Heard’s team should raise any issues with the juror in advance.

« Anyone looking at a 52-year-old man and a 77-year-old man would be able to tell – hopefully – there’s a 25-year difference, and they’d be entitled to ask about it, » a- he declared. « I think it’s too late to complain about the juror. »

Cochran also said he was skeptical that the confusion could lead to a mistrial or the judge overturning the verdict, but cautioned it was difficult to predict because the issue is so rare.

« I’ve been practicing for 50 years and I’ve never seen this problem arise, » he said.


Lavoie reported from Richmond.


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