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Heard hires new legal team for appeal of Depp defamation trial verdict

The “Aquaman” actress is appealing a jury’s verdict that found she defamed her ex-husband Johnny Depp and must pay him over $10 million in damages.

FAIRFAX, Va. (CN) — Elaine Bredehoft, known for representing Amber Heard during an arduous, six-week defamation trial, stepped down Monday as lead attorney for the “Aquaman” actress.

At the same time, Heard has hired a new slate of attorneys to represent her in the appellate phase of the defamation case brought by her ex-husband, actor Johnny Depp.

Bredehoft said she had recommended that Heard consider outside counsel for a fresh perspective during appeal.

"We worked with her to interview the new team," the attorney said. "She is in good hands. It’s the perfect time to pass the baton. I will continue to give full cooperation."

Bredehoft and other attorneys in the case signed a consent decree in the Virginia Court of Appeals noting their agreement to withdraw. Benjamin Rottenborn of Woods Rogers, who also represented Heard during the trial, will continue as co-counsel, according to Heard’s spokesman. 

The new team tapped to lead her appeal includes David L. Axelrod and Jay Ward Brown of Ballard Spahr. The two attorneys were on the legal team that successfully represented The New York Times in a libel lawsuit brought by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Beyond Bredehoft, previous attorneys who have represented the actress include Eric George, a noted business litigation lawyer, and civil rights lawyer Roberta Kaplan.

In an email, Depp's lead attorney Benjamin Chew wrote, “The list of attorneys withdrawing from the representation of Ms. Heard in this matter over the past few years has become a veritable elephants’ graveyard."

But a statement released by Heard’s spokesperson said "a different court warrants different representation, particularly as so much new evidence is now coming to light.

"When it comes to protecting the fundamental right of freedom of speech, we look at the jury’s decision -- to paraphrase a famous quote -- not 'as the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning,'" the statement said.

Depp sued Heard over an op-ed that appeared under her name in The Washington Post in December 2018, just as “Aquaman” was in theaters.  In the piece, Heard described how she’d become a public figure representing domestic abuse.  She never mentioned Depp by name but described a period – two years earlier – when she was married to him.  

In March 2019, three months after the piece appeared, Depp sued for $50 million in damages, claiming defamation by implication. The lawsuit, filed in Fairfax County, Virginia, where the Post is printed, charged that Depp lost his role in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise as a result of the article.

Heard asserts that she was abused during the couple’s marriage, which ended when the actress took out a temporary restraining order against Depp in 2016. She filed a $100 million counterclaim, contending one of Depp’s attorneys made statements defaming her.

The trial, a spectacle attended by Depp’s fans, ended on June1 with the jury siding mostly with the 59-year-old actor. They awarded him $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, the latter of which was reduced by the judge to the statutory maximum of $350,000. Depp’s total award came to $10.3 million.

In a split verdict, the jury also found Heard, 36, was defamed by a statement made by one of Depp's attorneys. She was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages and no punitive damages.

Both Heard and Depp have filed notices of appeal.

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