Depending on your viewpoint it was one of three things: the most compelling show of the summer, a protracted post-marital car crash, or a shocking waste of court time. Over 16 days in July at the Royal Courts of Justice, Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard accused each other of being abusive and violent, controlling and out of control.
It was hard to watch, hard to look away, and hard to remember that this was a libel trial not a divorce case or custody battle. Depp sued The Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers (NGN), and its executive editor Dan Wootton for damaging his career and reputation by calling him a “wife-beater” in an online headline. The paper’s lawyers cited 14 alleged assaults by Depp on Heard to contest the action; his lawyers argued that she was the abuser.
Today, Mr Justice Nicol came down in favour of NGN, who ruled that the tabloid had enough evidence to justify reporting that Depp was violent towards his Heard in their relationship. In the ruling, Justice Nicol said that Depp had “proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel”, but NGN showed that what they published “in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true”. The judge dismissed the characterisation of Heard as a ‘gold-digger’ who had constructed a ‘hoax’. He found that Depp had assaulted her on 12 occasions.
As the dust settles from the ruling, let’s refresh our memories of the legal battle of 2020.
On one side, John Christopher Depp, 57-year-old Kentucky-born matinee idol, wannabe rockstar and rackety hellraiser, star of Tim Burton arthouse fantasies and piratical Disney blockbusters. He’s dated Winona Ryder and Kate Moss and had two children in his 14-year relationship with Vanessa Paradis. His addiction issues are well-documented: Depp said in 2013 he had quit drinking as he and booze “got along beautifully, but maybe too well”.
On the other, Amber Laura Heard, 34-year-old Texan actress, model and campaigner against domestic violence and for LGBTQ rights. Has appeared in Pineapple Express, Zombieland, and as Mera in the DC universe Aquaman films. Currently dating Bianca Butti, an actress and cinematographer who was by her side during the trial.
Depp and Heard met on the set of The Rum Diary in 2009, started dating in 2012 and married in 2015. Heard filed for divorce on 23 May 2016 and alleged Depp had been verbally and physically abusive under the influence of drugs and alcohol throughout their relationship, which he denied. A settlement was reached in August 2016 and the divorce finalised in January 2017, Depp paying Heard $7million. She promised to donate it to charity.
In April 2018 the Sun published an online article by Wootton with the headline: “Gone Potty: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife-beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?” The headline was amended in print the following day. His libel case against The Sun and Wootton began on 7 July this year.
The starring roles
Depp appeared suited, be-ringed and amply tattooed, in shades and a bandanna face-covering, for the hearing in Court no 13, to be met by a crowd of adoring “Deppheads”, some with tales to tell of his kindness, some dressed as Edward Scissorhands or Jack Sparrow. Heard attended the trial with Butti and lawyer Jennifer Robinson.
The court was shown photos of Heard, who appeared bruised, allegedly as the result of a headbutt and a thrown phone. Depp’s team said that Heard regularly abused and assaulted Depp, with witnesses claiming she threw a can of Red Bull at his back, punched him and spat at him during a row. At one point Depp admitted “accidentally” headbutting Heard, claiming he was defending himself; Heard admitted punching Depp, believing he was going to push her sister down the stairs, saying she had once heard a rumour he had done so to Moss.
The key battlegrounds
The most contentious episodes proved to be a trip to Australia in 2015 where Depp was filming the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and Heard’s 30th birthday party in Los Angeles in 2016. The former turned into a “three-day hostage situation” according to Heard, during which he ripped off her nightgown, strangled her and severed his own finger, urinated and wrote graffiti in blood and paint on walls and mirrors, and hid raw meat around the house.
Depp claimed he was suffering from a breakdown at the time and injured the finger when Heard smashed a vodka bottle on his hand. He sent texts to his personal physician Dr Kipper — yes really — after the incident, calling Heard a “c***”.
Problems at the LA party began when Depp turned up late, because — he said — he had just learned he had lost $650 million in Pirates earnings and was $100 million in debt due to financial mismanagement. He smoked cannabis and went to bed to read a book, and claimed Heard attacked him there. Heard counter-claimed that Depp threw a champagne bottle at her and left the house the morning after the party; returning a month later to pick up his possessions”.
The court was shown an image of a turd in the couple’s bed, which Heard blamed on their Yorkshire Terrier Boo, and Depp blamed on Heard or “one of her cohort”, possibly her friend, trans activist iO Tillett Wright. Heard branded this suggestion “absolutely disgusting”: a 2014 text message of hers was read out where she said she Boo could not “predict or control when she uses the bathroom. Last night she sh*t all over Johnny while he was sleeping, like all over. Not exaggerating.” Depp insisted the stool in the defecation incident could not have been “left by a three- or four-pound dog” but that it was a “fitting end” to his relationship with Heard.
During the trial, Depp claimed both their dogs, Boo and Pistol, were well house-trained. He denied once holding Pistol out of the window of a speeding car and “making howling noises”.
Heard suggested Depp had a violent alter ego called “the Monster” which came out under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and introduced 2013 photos allegedly showing cocaine and cannabis paraphernalia. Depp was compelled to deny falling asleep in an aeroplane toilet after taking cocaine and assaulting Heard because he thought she was having an affair with James Franco on the set of The Adderall Diaries. Depp admitted taking cocaine with Marilyn Manson, telling his daughter Lily-Rose, then 13, that she should come to him if she wanted advice on drugs, and admitted that Boo the dog had once ingested “a ball of hashish” by accident.
The supporting cast
In a witness statement, made public after a press request, Ryder said that Depp was “never, never violent towards me”. Paradis had previously stated that he was “a kind, attentive, generous and non-violent person and father”.
The concierge at Depp’s LA penthouse claimed that tech billionaire Elon Musk “regularly visited” Heard late at night (Musk denied it on Twitter), and the court heard audio footage of Depp threatening to cut “Mollusc’s” penis off. Heard claimed Depp policed nudity and romantic scenes in her movies and jealously insulted her co-stars, calling Leonardo DiCaprio “pumpkin head” and Jim Sturgess “Jim Turd Sturgess”. There was intrigue when video from an “anonymous source” was introduced in which Heard’s sister Whitney Henriquez appeared to claim Heard had attacked her, having previously given evidence to the contrary.
Depp said he was a “Southern gentleman” who had respect for women but sent texts to actor friend Paul Bettany reading “let’s burn Amber” and “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will f*** her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she is dead.” Depp claimed this was a “joke”.