In just three hours this afternoon, the jury returned a verdict—finding that Love was not guilty of defamation.
Rhonda J. Holmes, a San Diego-based lawyer, is suing Courtney Love for a libelous tweet and quotes she gave to two different reporters. A jury in downtown Los Angeles will begin deliberating on the case this afternoon. Holmes’ lawyers are asking for $8 million in damages.
Love hired Holmes in 2008 to assist in fraud litigation over missing funds in Kurt Cobain’s estate. The two formed a quick and intense bond. After a few months of digging around, Holmes confirmed one of Love’s long-held fears: Kurt Cobain’s estate has been systematically drained of a fortune by criminals involved in a “very scary conspiracy.”
But after four months, their relationship ended, and Love put another lawyer on the case.
During tearful testimony this week, Love claimed that Holmes simply stopped returning her calls and disappeared for several weeks—before mysteriously reemerging. Love suspected that someone from “the conspiracy” had bought off Holmes, either through money, power, or influence. She “was a savior, a white knight,” Love said. “I never understood why she left me.”
Let’s talk about Courtney Love. In court, she is referred to as Ms. Cobain.
She sat behind me in the 35-seat courtroom this week and she smelled like mums, powder and smoke. She wore a limousine-blue bouclé Chanel skirt and blazer with tactfully fringed hems, a thin polished nickel belt clamped around her waist, diamond earrings, sheer black stockings and vintage nude kitten heels overlaid with black lace. Her expertly blonde hair was twisted back in an intentionally sloppy updo, two loose Swiss braids pulled back behind her ears. Love has jet-black lashes upon lashes that make her huge and already crystalline eyes look lighter and wetter.
Before Love testified she spent part of the afternoon recess gabbing with the defense team’s “Twitter Expert,” Steve Lee, who had just finished his two-hour testimony on the ephemeral nature of a tweet, the mechanics behind a retweet, the definition of a screenshot, and the overall cloud-like world of social media. Love excitedly told him, her hips rolled forward and shoulders scrunched up, about a trashy book she’s reading by a “seduction artist.”
The witness booth makes everyone look smaller and sadder. It’s an oversized box, washed in gulag lighting, and awkwardly positioned in front of the jury box. It forces whoever is inside to crane to make eye contact with the jury. Civil trials are oppressively ruled by minutia, making whoever is testifying in that damnable booth for more than 20 minutes deflate into a sagging glaze-eyed bag. The jury is at least half men over 40 who seem easily bored; there is also one young woman who is distinctly not bored.
Courtney Love is not famous by accident. Her face is wide, expressive, mischievous, and hauntingly symmetrical. She even makes the witness box appear glamorous through the force of high fashion and charisma. She is the white witch.
“I make rock music,” she told the jury casually, bringing her tastefully jeweled fingers lightly to her chest. “My mojo comes to me late at night, I keep graveyard hours. Pop stars who start working at 8 a.m., they make no sense to me.”
Love started to cry ten minutes into her testimony about her relationship with Holmes, letting out a loud and abrupt sob when describing the relief she felt walking into her teenaged daughter’s bedroom to announce that Holmes confirmed that people from “the dark side” were conspiring to rob the Cobain estate.
“When I told people I was hacked by the News of the World, no one believed me but it was true,” Love testified, speaking quickly and her hands fluttering. “When I said I was being robbed by criminals no one believed me but Rhonda.” Love said that Holmes confirmed there were over 67 unauthorized live accounts in separate banks under the names and social security numbers of Love, her daughter, and her late husband.
“I went into Frances’ room and said it was over. We were going to fight back,” she said. Love believed Holmes would ensure their victory.
“@noozjunkie I was fucking devastated when Rhonda J Holmes Esq of san diego was bought off @fairnewsspears perhaps you can get a quote.”
For this tweet posted by Love—which Love erased in less than an hour—in May of 2009, Holmes wants $2 million for emotional distress and another $2.5 million for the injury to her reputation.
Love testified that the tweet was intended to be a direct message, not a public tweet. “I’m sort of a computer retard,” Love told the jury.
A year after the tweet, Love told Canadian music writer Alan Cross about her intentions to get back the money pilfered from Cobain’s estate. Cross quoted Love:
“‘I’ve been hiring and firing lawyers to help me with this.’ She goes on to tell of a female attorney who has since stopped taking her calls because ‘they got to her’….”
For this, Holmes wants $2 million for emotional distress and $1.5 million for damage to her reputation.
“She is not a confused person,” Holmes’ attorney, Barry Langberg, said about Love in his closing arguments yesterday afternoon. “She’s highly intelligent, she’s a highly accomplished person…. She was angry because Rhonda wouldn’t take her back after she fired her.” Langberg then gestured at Love in her second row seat. Ms. Cobain’s fist was tucked under her chin, and she was rocking back and forth very slightly.
“She’s a powerful, media-savvy, sophisticated woman who knows just how to destroy a reputation if she wants to,” he said.
Let’s talk about Rhonda Holmes.
Rhonda coordinates her colors. Her purple satin blouse, adorned with floral pattern of sprawling violets, matched her spiked lavender heels that are embellished with little metal studs along the arch of her foot. The frames of her glasses have dark purple legs. She’s in her fifties and came to court with her thick and highlighted dusty blonde hair blow-dried and volumized, with thick hot iron-created curls framing her walnut-tan face. Her lip gloss is a frosty, blossom pink. Pinned behind her ear was a hair clip with a fake black flower, each petal with a glittery nub meant to resemble dew.
Another day in court, Holmes wore a palette of pink hues, a salmon bouclé pant suit, a strawberry colored blouse and an enameled red rose brooch pinned above her heart.
Love testified that she felt a deep connection to Holmes. “I considered her a friend,” Love said on the stand. Holmes reiterated this in a private letter sent directly to Love’s daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, two weeks before Holmes’ says she was terminated by Love. Holmes had never met Frances in person; Courtney Love did not know of the letter.
April 27, 2009
Dear Ms. Frances Cobain:
By formal introduction, my name is Rhonda Holmes, and I am an attorney. I represent you, along with your Grandmother Wendy, and your Aunts Kim and Brianne. The work I am doing on all your behalf relates to tracking down and prosecuting the people and entities who have been stealing from and pillaging your late Father’s estate since the day he passed away. I am keenly aware of the sensitivity of this matter, as I lost my own husband from suicide within a few month’s of your own Father’s suicide.
Holmes’ cites Love’s huge pride and protectiveness in Frances as the motivation behind the the letter, insisting that she, like Love, believes that Frances will have a successful career as an artist “with vast sums of money” in her own right:
On the matter of your career, if you will kindly indulge me for just a moment of solicited advice, as despite years of trying, I was unable to stay pregnant and carry a baby to full term. So, envying, above all your Mother’s gifts, her relationship with you, I’d be grateful to you both for allowing me to overstep this one area: I understand Dear Frances you are NOT in school at the moment.”
Holmes encourages Frances to re-enroll in school because “this cruel world has shown time and again it has little tolerance for the scholastically-impaired.” Holmes then dives into the heart of the matter:
You are ALL the unfortunate the victims of a very large and very scary conspiracy. I have personally experienced the reach and criminality of these thieves.They have hacked into my PCs (on one such occasion, to make my legal brief in this very case ‘disappear’); used my credit cards all over the country; and accessed/drained my account. I am here to ensure these thieves don’t mess with you anymore.
Holmes has claimed that she didn’t write this letter. She said that Love is actually its author.
“Perhaps my client got too involved,” Langberg told the jury during his closing arguments. But that’s only because she cared so much—and Courtney Love knew that, he argued.
“I guess she”—Love—”realized that with all the lawyers that she’s involved with that she had a special kind of lawyer and she was angry that she”—Holmes—”wouldn’t come back to her,” he said.
Langberg then quoted Abraham Lincoln: “Lincoln said a lawyer’s reputation is his most important asset. We’re here today to salvage this lady’s reputation.”
Langberg said that the damage done by Love’s tweets and quotes is unknowable: We can just never know how many potential clients didn’t hire Holmes because of Love’s deliberate and libelous comments.
Holmes lawsuit has been cited in some press reports as the first “landmark” Twitter and libel case now being referred to as “Twibel”—a pithy shorthand used by the PR firm that represents Langberg, which has been quite busy sending out emails blasts about the case. But there is nothing about the libel claim that treats Twitter as different from any other form of written expression. Langberg explained why Love’s tweet is not protected by the First Amendment. You are allowed to express any opinion you want—”on Twitter, on the street, in your book club”—but, he said, you can’t parade that opinion as fact.
The jury will have to decide if all the following assertions are “more likely to be true than not true” in order to support Holmes’ libel claim.
1. Courtney Love made these statements about Rhonda J. Holmes to people other than Holmes.
2. These people made the reasonable assumption that the statements made by Love were about Holmes.
3. The statements were false—and Love knew they were false when she made them
For Holmes to win punitive damages the jury must decide that she suffered “shame, mortification, or hurt feelings,” per the judge’s instructions. The jury must also decide if Love’s comments were rooted in malice or reckless disregard.
During pauses in the day’s proceedings Love would leave for occasional bathroom breaks, stealthily text message on her iPhone, and whisper to her lawyers and assistant. At one point she tapped on her iPhone as she and her male assistant chatted in hoarse whispers about someone Love was scheduled to meet. “Yeah,” Love said, “but is she a bitch?”
The defense gives their closing arguments today. A verdict is expected next week, after two or three days of deliberation.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a reporter in Los Angeles.