Months after Johnny Depp prevailed in a defamation case against Amber Heard, who accused him of physical and sexual abuse, he has begun testing the status of his public image, appearing in a fashion show backed by Rihanna and an awards show in which he delivered tongue-in-cheek laugh lines about his derailed career.
But in a Virginia appeals court, the legal battle continues.
Last week, Ms. Heard’s lawyers filed an appeal in hopes of overturning a jury’s verdict that Ms. Heard had defamed Mr. Depp, her former husband, in 2018 by describing herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse” in an opinion essay in The Washington Post. Mr. Depp, who was not named in the essay, was awarded more than $10 million in damages.
Claims that are factually accurate cannot be ruled defamatory. So although the case technically hinged on statements from Ms. Heard’s essay, much of the trial focused on whether her accusations that Mr. Depp had subjected her to repeated physical abuse — including punching, head-butting and sexual assault — were true.
Mr. Depp vehemently denied Ms. Heard’s accusations, and during the trial, he argued that she was the aggressor in their relationship.
In their 68-page appeal, Ms. Heard’s lawyers lodged an array of legal objections, arguing that the trial was held in the wrong state and taking issue with the judge’s decision to exclude certain pieces of evidence, including contemporaneous notes from therapists that they say document allegations of abuse. They asked for the jury’s verdict to be reversed, either with a dismissal of Mr. Depp’s claims or a new trial entirely.
“The trial court improperly prevented the jury from considering several separate instances in which Heard reported Depp’s abuse to a medical professional,” the lawyers wrote.
Mr. Depp’s legal team has also appealed part of the verdict — the jury awarded Ms. Heard $2 million in damages, agreeing that a lawyer for Mr. Depp defamed her in comments to a newspaper — while otherwise declaring victory.
“The jury’s emphatic favorable verdict on all three defamatory statements alleged in his complaint fully vindicated Mr. Depp and restored his reputation,” Mr. Depp’s lawyers wrote in their court filing, which was submitted to the Court of Appeals of Virginia this fall.
A manager for Mr. Depp testified that it became “impossible” to get his client cast in a studio film after Ms. Heard’s essay was published, and Mr. Depp said his career prospects tanked after it was made public that Ms. Heard had obtained a temporary restraining order because she said he had assaulted her. (Ms. Heard’s lawyers argued that there were other reasons for his career troubles, including “unprofessional behavior” described by his former agent, such as showing up late to sets and having trouble with lines.)
During the trial, Mr. Depp’s fans flooded the courthouse to support him. Now, six months later, there are signals that he is again being embraced by some in the entertainment world.
Last month, he had a cameo in a streamed fashion show for Rihanna’s lingerie line, Savage x Fenty, in which he swaggered for the camera in loungewear as dancers flanked him. During MTV’s Video Music Awards, his face was digitally superimposed onto the body of the network’s moon man mascot, and he jokingly offered his services for weddings and bar mitzvahs, quipping, “I needed the work.”
“It’s pretty clear that Johnny Depp is back,” said Evan Nierman, a public relations executive. Even if Ms. Heard prevails on appeal, he said, “the public has already moved on.”
Still, it is unclear whether major Hollywood studios will be willing to back Depp, who for decades was a coveted leading man. In addition to his starring role as Jack Sparrow in five “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, he received Oscar nominations for “Sweeney Todd” and “Finding Neverland.”
Mr. Depp, 59, is now involved in at least two movies: a French historical drama by the filmmaker Maïwenn in which Mr. Depp plays King Louis XV, and a film about the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, which Mr. Depp is set to direct. Neither appears to have backing from a major American studio, though Al Pacino and Barry Navidi are involved in producing the Modigliani film.
Ms. Heard, known for her work in films including “Aquaman” and “Pineapple Express,” has largely retreated from public life since the trial, when she was the subject of intense online criticism. At one point, she called the ridicule of her testimony “agonizing” and said she had received thousands of death threats. The actress is also in a legal dispute with an insurance company over whether the judgment in the defamation case is covered by her policy.
A week before Ms. Heard, 36, filed her appeal, a group of women’s and domestic violence organizations, as well as professors, activists and lawyers, signed an open letter condemning a “monetized social media environment where a woman’s allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault were mocked for entertainment.” Among the signatories were the feminist activist Gloria Steinem, the actress Constance Wu and the filmmaker Amy Ziering.
Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who studies sexual violence and signed the open letter, called Mr. Depp’s re-entrance into the mainstream entertainment world “hugely disappointing” but ultimately unsurprising.
“In our society, when we think a man has been wronged and has not gotten the opportunities we believe he was entitled to,” she said, “then we’re very quick to correct it by offering more opportunities.”
Ms. Heard’s appeal criticizes the lower court’s decision that the case could be heard in Virginia, based on an argument by Mr. Depp’s lawyers that The Washington Post’s computer servers are there. Ms. Heard’s lawyers wanted the case moved to California, where both actors lived, arguing that it was otherwise difficult for Ms. Heard to call live witnesses.
Ms. Heard’s appeal also challenged Judge Penney Azcarate’s decision to allow the defamation case to proceed at all after a judge in a separate case in Britain had ruled there was evidence that Mr. Depp had repeatedly assaulted Ms. Heard. Mr. Depp lost that libel suit, which he had filed after The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, called him a “wife beater.”
Evidence presented in the British case that Ms. Heard’s lawyers argue was unfairly kept from Virginia jurors included 2015 records kept by a psychologist about a fight in which Ms. Heard related that Mr. Depp had “started the physicality — pushed her down,” as well as reports to a nurse of physical violence. Judge Azcarate excluded the evidence as hearsay.
“If not reversed, the trial court’s exclusion of contemporaneous reports of domestic abuse to medical professionals will make it more difficult for other abuse victims to prove allegations of abuse, and likely deter them from coming forward,” Ms. Heard’s lawyers wrote. (A lawyer working on her appeal, Jay Ward Brown, has represented The New York Times in the past.)
Mr. Depp’s appeal contends that Ms. Heard’s victory on one of three claims in her countersuit should not stand, arguing that Mr. Depp was not responsible for statements made by his lawyer at the time. In comments to The Daily Mail, the lawyer, Adam Waldman, had accused Ms. Heard of damaging the couple’s penthouse and blaming it on Mr. Depp.
“If clients cannot control the details of their attorneys’ work, it makes little sense that clients should nonetheless be held accountable for their attorneys’ tortious actions,” Mr. Depp’s current lawyers wrote.
A panel of judges will decide on both appeals, after which either side can seek to revive its claims once more in the Virginia Supreme Court.[via]