Johnny Depp and Amber Heard to face off in defamation trial
By Julia Jacobs
Actor Johnny Depp could not convince a judge in London that he was innocent of allegations that he had abused his former wife, actress Amber Heard, but in a trial starting Monday, Depp was to take his defamation complaint to a jury in Virginia.
The U.S. trial centers on a lawsuit Depp filed against Heard, who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2018, after the couple divorced, saying she had become a “public figure representing domestic abuse.”
The piece did not mention Depp by name, but he has asserted in court papers that it clearly referred to their relationship, and that his reputation and career were “devastated” as a result.
During three years of legal sparring in Virginia, Depp, 58, and Heard, 35, have shared pages of lurid details from their varying accounts of their marriage. Heard’s descriptions of “volatile and violent” episodes with Depp throughout their relationship included his slapping her, head-butting her, throwing her to the ground and pulling out clumps of her hair, according to court papers.
In his lawsuit, filed in March 2019, Depp denied that he was a domestic abuser and said Heard’s accusations were an “elaborate hoax” intended to boost her public persona — one that succeeded in making her a “darling of the #MeToo movement.” Depp has said Heard had been the perpetrator of abuse, accusing her in court papers of punching, kicking him and throwing objects, including a vodka bottle that he said shattered on the countertop and severed the tip of one of his fingers.
“Mr. Depp brings this defamation action to clear his name,” his lawsuit said.
Heard said in court papers that she has never attacked Depp except in self-defense or in defense of her younger sister, and that Depp severed the tip of his finger when he smashed a phone against the wall during a violent outburst.
“I have never physically abused anyone,” she wrote. “I know what that does to people.”
The trial in Fairfax County Circuit Court is expected to last about six weeks and will begin with jury selection. The proceedings will be televised, all but guaranteeing that they will become a public spectacle. Both parties are expected to testify. In addition, Heard’s list of potential witnesses includes several celebrities — among them Elon Musk and James Franco — and the evidence the two sides intend to put forward includes text messages between the couple, medical records and surveillance footage from Los Angeles, where they lived together.
(Heard exchanged texts with Musk about her marriage that were used as evidence in the British case, and she said in that trial that Franco saw the bruises on her face after an altercation that is in dispute.)
There are also weighty legal questions in play as jurors will be asked to review, not only Depp’s claim but also issues raised in a countersuit Heard filed in 2020. It accused Depp of defaming her through his former lawyer, who gave statements to the media saying that Heard’s abuse claims were a hoax.
The trial is one of the most high-profile examples of defamation cases that have arisen from the #MeToo era, and lawyers around the country are following it closely.
The former couple met when Heard was cast as Depp’s love interest in the 2011 film “The Rum Diary” and were married in 2015. The next year, a court in California granted Heard a temporary domestic violence restraining order against Depp after she alleged “emotional, verbal and physical abuse” in a petition to the court, detailing a recent incident in which she said Depp violently shoved her to the floor and threw a Champagne bottle at the wall after her 30th birthday party, and another in which she said he threw a cellphone at her, hitting her in the face.
In court papers, Depp has denied Heard’s version of events, saying she punched him in the face repeatedly after he was late for her birthday dinner and accusing her of faking a bruise on her face to obtain the restraining order, which she ultimately withdrew. (Heard dismissed her petition for a longer-term restraining order as part of their divorce agreement, her lawyers wrote in court papers.)
After the couple divorced, The Washington Post published Heard’s op-ed, but the newspaper has not been named as a defendant in the case.
Online, the op-ed was titled, “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath.”
“A movie I was attached to recast my role,” the op-ed read. “I had just shot a two-year campaign as the face of a global fashion brand, and the company dropped me. Questions arose as to whether I would be able to keep my role of Mera in the movies ‘Justice League’ and ‘Aquaman.’”
Although it catalogs the damage she said she suffered by going public, the op-ed did not detail her allegations of the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of Depp.
The op-ed identified Heard as an ambassador on women’s rights at the American Civil Liberties Union, and she said in court papers that the ACLU — whose executive director, Anthony Romero, is also listed as a potential witness in the trial — suggested that Heard write the piece and submitted it to the newspaper.
Depp claims in the lawsuit that after the op-ed was published, the damage to his career and reputation was “swift and severe.” Days after, Disney confirmed that Depp would not be returning to one of his most prominent film roles as Captain Jack Sparrow in a possible “Pirates of the Caribbean” reboot, according to his lawsuit.
“He was denied an opportunity to reprise that role immediately on the heels of Ms. Heard’s false and defamatory op-ed,” the lawsuit said.