Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s courtroom faceoff: an explainer

  • >>Alex Marshall, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-07-25 11:16:40 BdST

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Actor Johnny Depp gestures as he arrives at the High Court in London on Jul 24, 2020. REUTERS

For the past three weeks, the attention of movie fans has been focused on one place: London’s grand, neo-Gothic Royal Courts of Justice.

Not because of a shoot.

Almost every day since July 7, Johnny Depp has walked into Court 13 here, where he is suing the owners of The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, and its executive editor, Dan Wootton, for libel over a 2018 article that called Depp a “wife beater” and said there was “overwhelming evidence” that he had assaulted actress Amber Heard during the pair’s marriage. Depp denies all the claims.

The newspaper has argued in court that it was “entirely accurate and true” to call Depp a “wife beater,” and Heard has been testifying this week on its behalf. (In English law, unlike in the United States, the burden of proof lies on the publisher in such cases.)

Depp, 57, testified at length earlier in the case, accusing Heard, 34, of violence toward him — claims she has denied in turn.

The proceedings have aired unsavoury details of the marriage — from their drug and alcohol use to the moment excrement was found in a bed. And it has potential implications for both actors’ careers, with the verdict likely either to give Heard more prominence in the #MeToo movement or to leave her accused of having hijacked it, said Nick Wallis, a journalist who has live-tweeted much of the trial proceedings and has put court documents online.

Only one party seemed to be benefiting so far, Wallis added: The Sun. The case had generated so much publicity for the paper that “even if it loses, it’s a win-win,” he said.

Here’s what’s happened so far and what’s next.

What is the background to the relationship between Depp and Heard?

Depp and Heard met while making “The Rum Diary” in 2011, a film based on a book by Hunter S. Thompson. They married in February 2015, but Heard filed for divorce just over a year later and obtained a temporary restraining order against Depp after accusing him of hitting her. She said at the time, according to The Associated Press, that she had “endured excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse” in the relationship.

She withdrew those claims the day before a restraining order hearing was scheduled, and the divorce was finalized with a $7 million settlement. In a joint statement, the two declared: “Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”

But the allegations did not go away. The Sun article appeared in April 2018. A few months later, Heard published an opinion piece in The Washington Post titled, “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” Depp is suing Heard for defamation in the United States over that article, which he says led to him being dropped from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise.

What has Heard claimed?

On Monday, Heard told the court that Depp often put her in “life-threatening” situations. “I had been for years, for years, Johnny’s punching bag,” she added Tuesday. On Wednesday, she detailed an episode in Australia in which she said he threw bottles at her “like grenades or bombs.”

In pretrial documents, Heard listed 14 times when she said Depp assaulted her.

The first occurred in early 2013, Heard said in a pretrial statement, when the couple were sitting on a couch talking about one of Depp’s tattoos. She said it had originally read “Winona,” in reference to Winona Ryder, his former partner, but that he had changed it to read “wino.”

Heard said she had laughed during the conversation, and in response, Depp hit her three times. “It felt like my eye popped out,” she added of the third strike, saying it knocked her off balance and to the floor.

In later incidents, Heard claims, Depp grabbed her by the hair, choked her, head-butted her and repeatedly punched her, on top of emotional abuse and other controlling behaviour.

She said Wednesday that his behaviour was “so confusing because when he was clean and sober, he was wonderful, and that part of him I loved so much.” News Group Newspapers — The Sun’s publisher — claims Depp’s memory of the couple’s time together has been impaired by heavy drug and alcohol use. He has admitted use of both at times in the relationship but said his tolerance for substances was high.

What has Depp’s response been?

Depp denies the incidents. He told the court that whenever the couple had an argument he would retreat, sometimes hiding in bathrooms. “I would try to go to my own corner, as it were,” he said when asked about one incident. “I thought it important that we separate before things got out of hand.” Witnesses including a former estate manager for Depp and a former assistant to Heard have testified in his favour.

Depp has repeatedly portrayed Heard as an aggressor, provoking arguments. In the incident in Australia, Depp told the court, Heard threw a vodka bottle at him, severing the tip of one of his fingers.

Heard denies all claims that she was violent toward him and said that Depp must have severed the fingertip himself, potentially in the process of ripping a phone off the wall and smashing it beside her face repeatedly.

On Monday, Heard admitted she had thrown “pots and pans” at Depp but said it was “only to escape him.” She also acknowledged hitting him once but only to protect her sister, who she thought he was about to push down some stairs. “I will never forget it,” she said of that moment. “It was the first time after all these years that I actually struck him back.”

Have other celebrities been embroiled in the case?

The names of numerous celebrities have popped up in the case, such as Elon Musk — with whom Depp accuses Heard of having had an affair. (Text messages between Heard and Musk have been read out in court. Heard says they were not involved until after the relationship with Depp had ended.)

Ryder and Vanessa Paradis, Depp’s former partners, were expected to testify via video link, until The Sun’s publisher eventually decided not to challenge their testimony. “I was so absolutely shocked, confused and upset when I heard the accusations against him,” Ryder said in a witness statement. “I do not want to call anyone a liar, but from my experience of Johnny it is impossible to believe that such horrific allegations are true,” she added.

Paradis’ statement also offered support to Depp.

What happens next?

The case, which is being heard without a jury, continues, with final arguments not expected until Tuesday. The judge, Justice Nicol, will then take time to consider his ruling.

Are there longer-term implications?

That will depend on the ruling, said Richard Danbury, a journalism lecturer at City University in London, in a telephone interview. A strong ruling against the newspaper could result in a “chill” on journalists’ ability to report or investigate domestic abuse stories, he said. But there might be a more immediate effect, he added, on anyone considering similar legal action: “Your whole marriage comes out.”

Wallis, the journalist, said the trial had sometimes focused on sordid moments because so much of the case turned on personal testimony. The two legal teams were seeking to “destroy the character of the person so their side of the story can’t be believed.” They were trying to portray Heard or Depp as “so mendacious, so drug-addled or irresponsible that they could be capable of making everything up,” he added.

Athalie Matthews, of law firm Farrer & Co., said the trial “had the effect of placing the damning allegation at the heart of the case — that Mr Depp is a ‘wife beater’ — into a giant global megaphone. As a result of the trial, millions more people have been made aware of The Sun’s allegation than would have been the case if Mr Depp had not sued.” The case “might well deter” more celebrities from litigating, she added.

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