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Johnny Depp loses libel case against British tabloid that called him a ‘wife beater’

Johnny Depp at the Los Angeles premiere of "Transcendence."
(Richard Shotwell / Invision/Associated Press)

A British court ruled Monday against Johnny Depp in his libel case against the owner of the Sun tabloid, which labeled the Oscar-nominated actor a “wife beater.”

Justice Andrew Nicol said the defendants had proved that what they published was “substantially true” during a high-profile trial in London over the summer that included lurid — and irreconcilable — accounts from Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard. Each accused the other of physical abuse.

“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.

The ruling represents a major blow to Depp’s reputation and to his finances, and could seriously damage his lucrative movie career. His lawyers said they would appeal, describing the decision as “perverse as it is bewildering.”

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

But Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, Heard’s U.S. attorney, said in a statement that the judgment was “not a surprise” for anyone who followed the trial. “Very soon, we will be presenting even more voluminous evidence in the U.S.,” she said.

Amber Heard has begun giving testimony at Britain’s High Court against ex-husband Johnny Depp, whom she has accused of abusing her.

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

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“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,” a spokesperson for the tabloid said.

Nicol delivered his written judgment Monday morning, three months after the end of a trial that exposed stark details of Depp and Heard’s tempestuous marriage. There was no in-person hearing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Depp, 57, had 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 Heard, whose films include “Justice League” and “Aquaman.”

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At the heart of the Sun’s characterization of Depp as a “wife beater” were allegations that he had assaulted Heard more than a dozen times in locations around the world, including a “three-day hostage situation” that she said took place in Australia while Depp was filming a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie.

Both Depp and Heard spent several days in the witness box during the three-week trial in July, giving contradictory accounts of their stormy relationship. The couple had met on the set of the 2011 comedy “The Rum Diary” and married in Los Angeles in 2015. They separated the following year and divorced in 2017.

Heard, 34, testified as the main witness for the defense, saying Depp turned into a violent alter-ego he dubbed the “Monster” when under the influence of alcohol and drugs. She alleged 14 separate incidents between 2013 and 2016 in which he hit, slapped and shoved her, pulled her hair and threw bottles at her. The alleged assaults took place in glamorous settings including the couple’s luxury penthouse, Depp’s private island in the Bahamas and an executive jet.

Depp, 57, branded the allegations as “sick” and a “hoax,” and accused Heard of being the aggressor during their relationship. He said that Heard hit him, and had even severed the tip of his finger with a thrown vodka bottle during a fight in Australia.

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Depp acknowledged heavy drug use, saying he took marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and magic mushrooms, and became addicted to opioid painkillers. But he denied that drugs made him violent.

“I am certainly not a violent person, especially with women,” he said.

Sasha Wass, lawyer for News Group Newspapers, said there was “no doubt that Mr. Depp regularly and systematically abused his wife.”

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Heard insisted that 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.

Depp’s lawyer, David Sherborne, accused Heard of wrongly donning the mantle of the #MeToo movement and called her “a wholly unreliable witness and frankly a compulsive liar.”

Both sides offered testimony from friends and former employees to back their version of events.

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Mark Stephens, a media lawyer, said that, regardless of the outcome, “the reputations of both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are tarnished irrevocably.”

Depp is also suing Heard for $50 million in Virginia over an article in the Washington Post about domestic violence. The trial is due to be held next year.


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