- Johnny Depp is suing ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation. The trial starts on April 11 in Virginia.
- Both Depp and Heard are expected to take the stand. Elon Musk and James Franco are on witness lists.
- In 2020, Depp lost a lawsuit against Central Recorder newspaper for labeling him a “wife beater.”
A former Hollywood couple will headline a trial kicking off Monday in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Acting legend Johnny Depp has accused his ex-wife, Amber Heard, of defaming him, saying she made up allegations of domestic violence to further her own acting career, and which resulted in him losing work.
Heard then countersued, accusing her former husband of regularly abusing before and during their 15-month marriage.
Both Depp and Heard are set to take the stand during the trial, which is expected to last two weeks. Both sides have also submitted star-studded witness lists that include Elon Musk, James Franco, and Paul Bettany.
Here’s everything you need to know about the former couple, the allegations they’ve levied against each other, and what experts think about each side’s chances of winning.
From costars to lovers to enemies
Depp and Heard met in 2009 while shooting their film “The Rum Diary,” but didn’t start dating until late 2011 or early 2012, Heard has said in court documents, around the time each of them split up with previous partners.
The two married in a private ceremony in February 2015. Immediately, the relationship had its difficulties, both alleged in court papers. According to Depp’s lawsuit, Heard had Musk stay at their shared penthouse in Los Angeles while the actor was away filming a movie. Heard alleged in her own court documents that Depp drank and took drugs alone, becoming violent toward Heard and working himself up into fury over her past relationships.
Depp and Heard eventually divorced after just about 15 months, in May 2016. Heard obtained a restraining order against him at the time, alleging physical abuse.
The divorce was settled by August of that year. At the time, the two released a joint statement describing their relationship as “intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love.”
“Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain,” the statement said. “There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”
Depp accused Heard of ruining his reputation in a Washington Post op-ed she wrote
Depp instigated his current legal battle with Heard, filing a $50 million defamation lawsuit against his former wife in March 2019, three months after she wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post where she described herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.”
In the op-ed, Heard describes having “felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out” against domestic violence.
“I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse,” she wrote.
While Heard didn’t name Depp in the op-ed, Depp’s lawyers said in the lawsuit it was “plainly” about him and that its “demonstrably false” allegations “devastated” his career and caused him to lose movie roles and face “public scorn.”
The judge overseeing the case agreed with Depp’s lawyers and allowed the lawsuit to go to trial.
“Although Mr. Depp was never identified by name in the ‘Sexual Violence’ op-ed, Ms. Heard makes clear, based on the foundations of the false accusations that she made against Mr. Depp in court filings and subsequently reiterated in the press for years, that she was talking about Mr. Depp and the domestic abuse allegations she made against him in 2016,” the judge wrote.
In his lawsuit, Depp further alleged that Heard “is not a victim of domestic abuse” but rather “a perpetrator.”
Depp’s lawsuit says she “committed multiple acts of domestic violence” during their marriage, including a “particularly gruesome episode” where Heard threw a vodka bottle at him, shattering the bones in the tip of his right middle finger, “almost completely cutting it off.”
His lawsuit focuses on one incident in 2016, alleging Heard cooked up a scheme where she publicly blamed Depp for a bruise on her face while petitioning for a restraining order against him.
Heard said Depp cause the bruise by throwing a cellphone at her face. But according to the lawsuit, Heard staged a fight between them, alleging he hit her with his cellphone and destroyed the penthouse.
The lawsuit alleged that Heard wasn’t aware Depp’s security guard was nearby, overhearing Heard’s false claims. Depp’s lawsuit also said that multiple building employees saw Heard over the next few days and said they didn’t see her with the bruise.
Heard responded by accusing Depp of being a serial abuser
In a response to the lawsuit, Heard accused Depp of physically assaulting her throughout their relationship, often while he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
In an April 2019 filing, Heard described 10 instances where she says Depp assaulted her, stretching from 2012 to the final encounter in 2016 that led to the restraining order and divorce.
“Depp’s claims are an attempt to mislead the trier of fact into thinking that one incident in 2016 — out of dozens of violent episodes throughout the couple’s relationship — is the only possible basis for Ms. Heard’s perspective as a domestic abuse victim,” her lawyers wrote.
Heard alleged Depp started to get violent about a year into their relationship, when she says he started drinking and doing drugs again and would “become a totally different person, often delusional and violent.”
She said the first time Depp hit her was in late 2012 or early 2013, when she laughed at what she believed was a joke. “He responded by slapping me across the face” multiple times, Heard wrote, “each hit was harder than the one before.”
“I did not respond physically or verbally; I froze, whether out of fear or shock, and I went home without saying a word,” Heard wrote in a court filing.
These violent outbursts escalated over the next four years, according to Heard. She described her fear that Depp would kill her during one incident in August 2015, when he “picked a fight” with her on a train in southeast Asia, grabbing her throat and pushing her against a wall.
“I remember being afraid that Johnny might not know when to stop, and that he might kill me,” Heard wrote.
In one particularly jarring account, Heard describes a violent three days spent with Depp in a hotel room in Australia, where she says he attacked her multiple times.
“In one of the most horrific and scariest moments of this three-day ordeal, Johnny grabbed me by the neck and collarbone and slammed me against the countertop,” Heard wrote. “I struggled to stand up as he strangled me; but my arms and feet kept slipping and sliding on the spilled alcohol and were dragged against the broken glass on the countertop and floor, which repeatedly slashed my feet and arms.”
Heard admitted to punching Depp once, but only to protect her sister, who she said intervened in one of their disputes.
In August 2020, Heard filed a counterclaim against Depp. She accused him of defamation in turn, alleging he lied about her in an interview with British GQ and other articles. She also claimed he was behind an online harassment campaign.
“This stream of false and defamatory accusations against Ms. Heard is all in an attempt to ruin her life and career, simply because she was a victim of domestic abuse and violence at the hands of Mr. Depp, and had the audacity and temerity to finally come forward to end the abuse and violence,” her attorneys wrote.
The trial is taking place in a state friendly to libel lawsuits
Depp’s legal team may have filed the lawsuit in Virginia because the state has a weak anti-SLAPP law, according to Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the University of Missouri School of Law. The statutes are designed to deter libel lawsuits from being used to intimidate people from using their right to free speech by allowing a victorious defendant to be awarded legal fees.
“Virginia is a good place for people to sue for libel because it’s not as protective of defendants in libel cases as some other jurisdictions,” Lidsky told Insider.
Unlike other states with weak anti-SLAPP laws, Virginia also gives a lot of leeway to plaintiffs filing lawsuits that can plausibly be in different districts. Both Depp and Heard live in Los Angeles. While Heard tried to get the lawsuit moved if it wasn’t dismissed, the judge wrote that The Washington Post having offices and servers in the state met the jurisdictional threshold of Virginia law.
But Heard won a major victory recently when the judge said she has grounds to argue that Virginia’s anti-SLAPP statute is applicable.
The judge also refused Depp’s motion to dismiss most of Heard’s counterclaims, meaning that she may be able to win damages from Depp at the end of the trial.
Both Depp and Heard signaled they may have celebrity friends testify. Heard said Elon Musk and James Franco may testify remotely. According to court filings, Depp had suggested Heard maintained relationships with both of them during their marriage. Depp plans to call Paul Bettany, who would also testify via a video, with whom he exchanged text messages criticizing Heard.
Depp already lost one defamation lawsuit over Heard’s claims
The Virginia case is the second time Depp has tried to defend himself in the courts against Heard’s domestic violence allegations.
In 2020, Depp accused Central Recorder, a British tabloid, of libel after a column described him as a “wife-beater.”
Though Heard was not a party to the lawsuit, she did testify at the trial in London, saying Depp threatened to kill her “many times” during their marriage.
Depp ultimately lost the case in November 2020, with UK Judge Andrew Nicol ruling that Heard’s allegations were “substantially true” and that Central Recorder was justified in referring to Depp as a “wife-beater.”
Heard asked the Virginia judge once again to toss the case after Depp lost his lawsuit in the UK. But Depp wanted to move the lawsuit forward anyway.
Penney S. Azcarate, the Fairfax County judge who had taken over the case from White, sided with Depp. She wrote in her opinion that the two cases dealt with different enough legal and factual issues for the Virginia one to go to trial. She also pointed out that Heard wasn’t a defendant in the UK case, and that libel laws between the US and UK are too different to allow American judges to rely on the British legal system.
“If anything, upholding English libel judgments in the United States would create the chilling effect and could create a dangerous precedent,” Azcarate wrote.
Libel lawsuits in the US are especially difficult to win if the plaintiff is a public figure, like Depp, since they have an additional burden to prove — not only that what was said against them was false and hurt their reputation, but that the lie was uttered knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth. This is called the “actual malice” standard.
Unlike in the UK, the burden is on Depp in the US to prove Heard lied. Depp is expected to do that by calling witnesses, like the building staff he cited in his lawsuit who said they didn’t see bruises on Heard’s face after she said he threw a cellphone at her.
“It’s a really difficult thing to show,” RonNell Andersen Jones, a professor at the University of Utah College of Law, told Insider. “It’s very often the kiss of death in a libel suit, having to meet that standard.”
Given the British legal system’s preference for plaintiffs in libel law, legal experts Insider spoke with seemed baffled that Depp wanted to continue his legal fight against Heard in the US after his UK loss.
Mariann Wang, a partner at the law firm Cuti Hecker Wang, who represented Summer Zervos in her defamation suit against Donald Trump, said “it wouldn’t normally be my advice to a client to keep on fighting something you may have already lost on some level.”
But she said “it’s not unusual for people in power who are challenged to continue to try and use their power and keep on trying to push other people around.”
Given the hit Heard’s allegations had on Depp’s reputation, keeping the fight up may be the only way to clear Depp’s name, Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, told Insider.
“It’s really the heart of defamation case. This is vindication for being accused of something that he claims he didn’t do,” Gutterman said. “He claims he didn’t commit domestic violence. And he wants to have his name cleared in that arena. And that’s what’s likely gonna be at the center of this lawsuit.”
Gutterman also sees the trial as essentially a proxy fight over Depp’s and Heard’s relationship history.
“We see this with a lot of libel cases, where the litigants are relitigating the past,” he said. “So as much as it’s going to be litigating whether a false and defamatory statement was published about either the parties, it’s really going to be a proxy fight for whether there were acts of domestic violence within this relationship.”
Implications for the #MeToo movement
Who’ll win? That depends on what jurors think of the evidence. Much of their impression will ride on whether Depp and Heard personally testify, and who they’ll find more trustworthy.
“The outcome will depend a lot on the credibility of Depp on the stand and Heard on the stand and I just don’t know how that’s going to look,” Lidsky told Insider.
Depp’s lawsuit is part of a recent wave of high-profile lawsuits, including the one Sarah Palin recently lost against the New York Times, and Smartmatic’s and Dominion’s lawsuits against right-wing media figures over 2020 election conspiracy theories. Given the personal nature of this one, it’s primed to be even messier.
“I think this is gonna be as close to a circus as you’re gonna see in a defamation case,” Gutterman told Insider.
A loss for Depp would provide a lesson on how strong America’s free speech laws really are, according to Jones.
But if Depp wins, it could have serious implications for those who spoke up in the #MeToo movement, she said.
“I expect a lot of eyes will be on this not just from corners of the law that are interested in libel but corners thinking about conversations on domestic violence and sexual abuse and the ways that the law can potentially be an added tool for justice in that area and the ways the law can be a tool for silencing,” Jones said. “Everybody is going to be watching.”