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Johnny Depp loses British libel case over article that called him a ‘wife beater’

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Frank Augstein AP

Actor Johnny Depp arrives at the High Court in London on July 28, 2020, during his case against News Group Newspapers over a story that branded him a ‘wife beater.

LONDON — The American actor Johnny Depp lost his libel case Monday against a British tabloid that called him a “wife beater” in an article about his fractious relationship with his former spouse, the actress Amber Heard.

The 57-year-old international star sued News Group Newspapers, the publisher of The Sun tabloid, and its executive editor Dan Wootton over an article published in April 2018. The piece originally ran with the headline: “Gone Potty: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”

Depp, best known for his roles as the flamboyant, kohl-eyed Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise, admitted in court that he and Heard had raging arguments, but he denied hitting her.  

The judge in the 16-day trial in the Royal Courts, Justice Andrew Nicol, said The Sun had proved its article was “substantially true.”

[A timeline of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s ongoing legal battle]

The loss of his high-stakes libel case is a serious blow to Depp and could cost him lucrative acting roles. He will also have to pay legal costs in London, which could run in the millions.

Depp’s lawyer on Monday called the ruling against her client “perverse,” and promised an appeal.

The ruling is a clear win for Heard, who has campaigned against domestic abuse, and may help her reclaim her reputation. During the trial, Depp and witnesses described her as a manipulative liar and a gold-digger, who drank to excess, and sought to frame Depp. 

Both Depp and Heard appeared in the witness box during the three-week trial in July, a dramatic showdown of accusations and counter-accusations, with reams of lurid details about lives of the rich and famous.

Heard, 34, who testified for the defense, alleged that Depp had assaulted her on 14 separate occasions during their volatile relationship. The judge found enough evidence to support her claims for 12 incidents.

Simon Dawson

Reuters

Actor Amber Heard leaves the High Court in London, Britain July 28, 2020.

The couple met in 2011 when they filmed “The Rum Diary” together, a film adaptation of a novel by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. They married in 2015 and separated in 2016, divorcing a year later.

Heard accused her ex-husband of verbal and physical abuse. She said Depp slapped, kicked, head-butted and choked her. During one incident, she said, Depp threw wine and liquor bottles at her “like grenades.” She claimed he was frequently inebriated and high on drugs while the couple lived together in Australia and Britain.

Depp blamed his actions, Heard said, on a self-created entity he dubbed “The Monster.”

Depp admitted heavy drinking and drug use, but strenuously denied allegations of violence. He claimed, instead, that he was the true victim of physical abuse, that Heard had repeatedly punched him in the face and claimed that his fingertip was severed after she hurled a bottle at him.

He said that Heard was a “compulsive liar” and that her claims were a “hoax.”

During the trial, two former partners of Depp — the actress Winona Ryder and French singer Vanessa Paradis, with whom Depp has two children — submitted witness statements saying that Depp had never been violent toward them and that they found the allegations upsetting.

Ryder, who was once engaged to Depp, wrote: “I understand that it is very important that I speak from my own experience, as I obviously was not there during his marriage to Amber, but, from my experience, which was so wildly different, I was absolutely shocked, confused and upset when I heard the accusations against him. The idea that he is an incredibly violent person is the farthest thing from the Johnny I knew and loved.” 

The judge in a 128-page ruling said he believed Heard, writing that the great majority of alleged assaults by Depp “have been proved to the civil standard.”

The judge said he agreed that Heard’s allegations “have had a negative effect on her career as an actor and activist.” He dismissed Depp’s characterization of Heard as a “gold-digger,” noting her “$7 million donation to charity is hardly the act one would expect of a gold-digger.”

In his ruling, the judge quoted from an email Depp sent in 2016 that read in part, “I have no mercy, no fear and not an ounce of emotion or what I once thought was love for this gold digging, low level, dime a dozen, mushy, pointless [person] … I can only hope that karma kicks in and takes the gift of breath from her …”

The Sun responded to the judgment, saying that the paper “has stood up and campaigned for the victims of domestic abuse for over twenty years.

“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.”

The ruling is a major blow for Depp, professionally and financially — he will have to pay his own legal fees and that of the other side, which could be in the millions. In England, the losers pays the winner’s costs.

One of Depp’s attorneys, Jenny Afia, called the decision against her client “as perverse as it is bewildering.”

She criticized the judge for relying on Heard’s testimony versus what she described as “the mountain of counter-evidence from police officers, medical practitioners, her own former assistant.”

Afia said, “the judgement is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr. Depp not to appeal this decision.”

It’s unclear if the ruling will have any impact on Depp’s decision to sue Heard for $50 million in a separate defamation case in the United States.

In a trial set to be held next year, Depp is charging that Heard over a 2018 op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post. In that article, she doesn’t mention Depp by name or point to any specific allegations, but talks about being a “public figure representing domestic abuse” and feeling “the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.”

Legal experts say that Depp could, arguably, face an even tougher task in a U.S. courtroom, where the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, or the person doing the suing.

In that case, Depp will try to prove that Heard knew that she made false statements and that they were published regardless. In England, the burden of proof is on the defendant, or the person or company being sued, who have to do the heavy lifting.

In the London case, News Group Newspapers needed to prove the substantial truth of their claim that Depp was a “wife beater.”

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