Johnny Depp loses court case against newspaper that called him a ‘wife beater’
By Alex Marshall
Johnny Depp on Monday lost his court case against a British newspaper that called him a “wife beater” and claimed there was “overwhelming evidence” that he had assaulted actress Amber Heard repeatedly during their marriage.
Andrew Nicol, the British judge who heard the case, issued his ruling online Monday, 96 days after the hearing into the accusations closed.
“The claimant has not succeeded in his action for libel,” the judge wrote, dismissing the case, saying that the defendants had shown that what they published was “substantially true.”
The assaults “must have been terrifying,” the judge wrote regarding incidents in March 2015 in Australia, in which Heard said that Depp assaulted her several times, including smashing a telephone beside her face. “I accept that Mr. Depp put her in fear of her life,” the judge wrote.
When the case was heard in July, it often seemed as if it were occurring solely to generate lurid newspaper headlines and movie-world gossip. Countless unsavory details of Depp and Heard’s marriage were aired.
But it was actually a libel case in which Depp, 57, was suing News Group Newspapers, the publishers of The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, and Dan Wootton, that newspaper’s executive editor, over a 2018 article that said there was “overwhelming evidence” that Depp had assaulted Heard.
The article called Depp a “wife beater” and urged author J.K. Rowling to intervene and have Depp removed from the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movie series, based on her book.
The newspaper’s legal team argued that the accusations in the article were “accurate and true.” Heard, 34, testified on the newspaper’s behalf and said in pretrial documents that Depp had assaulted her on 14 occasions during their relationship starting before they were married. Depp denied all of the claims, but the judge found that most of them did occur.
Depp is also suing Heard for defamation in the United States over an opinion article that she wrote for The Washington Post under the headline “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” Depp said the article led to his being dropped from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise.
It was not immediately clear whether the British judge’s ruling would have any implications for that case.
During the trial in Britain, the pair’s relationship was portrayed as tumultuous and filled with outbursts of violence. They met in 2011 while making “The Rum Diary,” a movie based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson, and married in February 2015. Heard filed for divorce just over a year later. She also obtained a temporary restraining order against the actor after accusing him of hitting her.
Heard later withdrew the claim, and in January 2017 the pair agreed to a $7 million divorce settlement. “There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm,” they said in a statement at the time.
During the trial, Heard said that the first time Depp assaulted her was in 2013, before their marriage. On that occasion, she said, he hit her three times after a discussion about one of his tattoos. The tattoo originally read “Winona forever,” in reference to Winona Ryder, Depp’s former partner, but he had it changed to read “Wino forever.”
“It felt like my eye popped out,” Heard said of the third strike, saying that it knocked her off balance and to the floor.
Sasha Wass, a lawyer representing the newspaper, told the court in her closing argument that Depp’s violence had come about because of a dislike of Heard’s independence, as well as his alcohol and drug use. Wass said that Depp had used so many substances that “he may not even have been aware of the extent of his violence and terrifying behavior.”
The judge agreed with most of that characterization, repeatedly highlighting Depp’s jealously and saying that his drug use impaired his memory.
During the trial, Depp’s team said that Heard was actually the abuser, provoking arguments and, in one case in an argument in Australia, throwing a vodka bottle at him, severing his fingertip. Heard testified that Depp had severed his own fingertip in the argument while smashing a phone next to her head.
In his ruling, the judge devoted 17 pages to discussing that fight. He pointed out that after sustaining the injury, Depp had admitted painting graffiti with his own blood on the walls of a house the couple was renting while he was filming a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. “It is a sign of the depth of his rage,” the judge wrote.
“What exactly caused the injury is uncertain,” he said, but added, “it may well be that Mr. Depp accidentally cut his finger on a piece of broken glass.”
Depp’s team also portrayed the accusations as a hoax that Heard had constructed as an insurance policy in case the marriage broke down. “She was, according to this scenario, nothing more than a gold-digger,” Nicol wrote in his ruling. “I do not accept this characterization of Ms. Heard,” he added, pointing out she had claimed to have given all of her $7 million divorce settlement to charity.
“Her donation is hardly the act one would expect of a gold-digger,” the judge said.
Heard acknowledged having once hit Depp, but told the court that she had been trying to protect her sister, whom she thought the actor was about to push down some stairs. “I will never forget it, because it was the first time after all these years that I actually struck him back,” Heard said.
During the trial, Heard said that she could not understand Depp’s defense, or why anyone would accept it. “Johnny was twice my size and beat me up for five years,” she testified. “It seemed preposterous to me that he could or would ever think that his claims of victimhood were real or would work.”
After the ruling was issued Monday, The Sun said in a statement, “Domestic abuse victims must never be silenced, and we thank the judge for his careful consideration and thank Amber Heard for her courage in giving evidence to the court.”
Depp’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer for Heard, said the actress was “unable to comment on the case due to the ongoing U.S. proceedings.” But Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, Heard’s American lawyer, said in a statement that the judgment was “not a surprise.”
“We are committed to obtaining justice for Amber Heard in the U.S. Court and defending Ms. Heard’s right to free speech,” Bredehoft said.