Johnny Depp loses libel case over wife-beater claims

Johnny Depp speaks at the ZFF Masters during the 16th Zurich Film Festival. (Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images for ZFF)

Johnny Depp lost his high-stakes libel case Monday against the Sun tabloid newspaper for labeling him a “wife beater,” as a British judge pointed to several episodes that he said showed the actor’s ex-wife had feared for her life.

Justice Andrew Nicol said that the defendants had proved that what they published was “substantially true” during a trial in London over the summer that included lurid — and irreconcilable — accounts from Depp and Amber Heard in which each accused the other of abuse. Depp’s lawyers said they would appeal the decision.

“I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard,” Nicol wrote in his ruling.

In arguably the biggest English libel trial of the 21st century, Depp sued News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and the newspaper’s executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an April 2018 article that accused him of assaulting fellow actor Heard.

For now, the ruling deals a big blow to Depp’s reputation that could seriously damage a lucrative movie career, which has seen the actor take the lead in some of the most popular family movies in recent times. That comes with an indeterminate financial cost on top of the legal costs he will be required to pay that could run into several million pounds.

A lawyer for Depp, 57, described the decision as “perverse as it is bewildering.”

“The judgment is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr. Depp not to appeal this decision,” Jenny Afia said in a statement.

An attorney for Heard, meanwhile, said the verdict was “not a surprise” for anyone who followed the trial.

The Sun called the decision a “stunning victory for press freedom” and said that it had stood up and campaigned for victims of domestic abuse for more than 20 years.

At the heart of the Sun’s characterization of Depp as a “wife-beater” were allegations it printed that the actor had assaulted Heard 14 times in locations around the world.

Heard, 34, said the abuse was largely fueled by Depp’s heavy drug and alcohol use and that he could turn into “a self-created third party,” which he referred to as “The Monster.” She alleged that at various time between 2013 and 2016 he hit, slapped and shoved her, pulled her hair and threw bottles “like grenades” at her.

Nicol noted several times when Heard feared for her life, including a “three-day hostage situation” that Heard said took place in Australia in March 2015 while Depp was filming a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.

“I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her,” the judge wrote about the episode in Australia.

Depp acknowledged in court taking marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and magic mushrooms, and that he became addicted to opioid painkillers. But added: “I am certainly not a violent person, especially with women.”

The judge found that 12 instances of domestic violence had occurred and dismissed charges made by Depp’s legal team that Heard had “constructed a hoax.” He added that was sufficient to rule against Depp.

The judge also accepted Heard’s evidence that the allegations she made against one of the world’s most popular actors have “had a negative effect on her career as an actor and activist.”

Depp is also suing Heard for $50 million in Virginia over a Washington Post op-ed essay that she wrote about domestic violence. The essay talks about her experience being abused but does not name Depp. The trial is due to be held next year.

“Very soon, we will be presenting even more voluminous evidence in the U.S.,” said Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, Heard’s attorney in the U.S.

Afia, who represents Depp, said that “we hope that in contrast to this case, the ongoing libel proceedings in America are equitable, with both parties providing full disclosure rather than one side strategically cherry picking what evidence can and cannot be relied upon.”

Depp and Heard met on the set of 2011 comedy “The Rum Diary” and married in Los Angeles in 2015. They separated the following year and divorced in 2017.

Heard chronicled acts of violence from early on in their relationship. Depp branded the allegations “sick” and a “hoax” and claimed Heard was the aggressor during their relationship. He said that Heard hit him, even severing the tip of his finger with a thrown vodka bottle during an altercation in Australia during filming of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.

Heard insisted she was telling the truth and said she had spoken out reluctantly.

“What woman has ever benefited from being a victim of domestic violence?” she asked in court.

Lisa King, director of communications and external relations at the charity Refuge, which provides support for victims of domestic violence, expressed hope that the ruling sends “a very powerful message” that every single survivor of domestic abuse “should be listened to and should be heard.”

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at the law firm Howard Kennedy, called the decision “absolutely devastating” for Depp.

“Johnny Depp is only going to be able to rehabilitate himself if he accepts this judgment,” he added.

Stephens said in addition to paying his legal team, Depp will have to pay a “significant proportion” of the Sun’s legal costs. He also said there may be legal costs of up to 2 million pounds (nearly $2.6 million) in relation to the U.S. case.