Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s Defamation Trial, Explained

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Getty Images

On Monday, seven years after Amber Heard first accused Johnny Depp of assaulting her, Heard, 35, and Depp, 58, will come face-to-face with each other in a Virginia courtroom over allegations that Heard defamed Depp; he is suing her for $50 million over a 2018 Washington Post op-ed she wrote titled “Opinion: Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” In response, Heard filed a $100 million defamation counterclaim against Depp. The defamation trial, which will feature other famous actors called to testify, will air on Court TV. Here’s how we got here and what to expect once the trial kicks off on April 11, 2022.

What do we know about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s relationship?

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s romantic relationship was brief compared to their protracted legal battles. The two met and began a relationship on the set of Depp’s movie The Rum Diary in 2009 when Heard was 23 and Depp was 46. They subsequently married in 2015, legally in California, and then again ceremoniously on Depp’s private island in the Bahamas.

Almost as quickly as the marriage started, it was over. In May 2016, 15 months later, Heard filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. She filed a restraining order against Depp, accusing him of hitting her with a phone. She appeared days later at the Los Angeles courthouse with a bruised cheek and said in court papers that Depp had been “verbally and physically abusive” to her during the entirety of their relationship. She described two recent alleged incidents of assault by Depp in her court papers — one occurred on her birthday when Depp allegedly threw a magnum-size bottle of Champagne at the wall and then grabbed her “by the hair and violently shoved me to the floor,” and another happened a month later, where he allegedly grabbed her cell phone, “wound up his arm like a baseball pitcher and threw the cell phone at me striking my cheek and eye with great force,” according to a declaration submitted by Heard in the Los Angeles court. She also submitted pictures of her bruised face.

Depp vehemently denied he ever struck Heard, and the police who initially investigated Heard’s claims said they found no evidence of a crime. Instead, Depp accused Heard in his court papers of “attempting to secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse.”

Heard’s initial request for a temporary restraining order against Depp was granted, but on the eve of their civil trial over extending the restraining order, Heard and Depp announced they had settled their differences. They released a joint statement that said, “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”

As part of the divorce settlement, Depp gave Heard $7 million, as the couple had no prenup. Heard subsequently announced that she would be donating the money to the ACLU and to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, saying at the time it was to help others “less able to defend themselves.”

Why is Johnny Depp suing Amber Heard?

While the couple settled, the drama and allegations between them were far from over. Two years later, Heard would write an op-ed at the center of the current lawsuit.

In the column, published on December 18, 2018, she stated, “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” She went on: “Then two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out,” adding, “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

Despite the fact that he wasn’t personally named in the op-ed, Depp filed a $50 million defamation lawsuit against Heard in Virginia over her characterizations in those three sentences. His team alleged that the “op-ed depended on the central premise that Ms. Heard was a domestic abuse victim and that Mr. Depp perpetrated domestic violence against her.”

“Mr. Depp brings this defamation action to clear his name,” according to Depp’s complaint.

Depp’s legal team said that he never abused Heard and that her allegations against him were part of an “elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity for Ms. Heard and advance her career,” according to his court papers. Depp’s legal team stated in his court papers that “the false allegations against Mr. Depp have been conclusively refuted by two separate responding police officers, a litany of neutral third-party witnesses, and 87 newly obtained surveillance camera video.”

“Ms. Heard is not a victim of domestic abuse, she is a perpetrator,” Depp’s legal team stated in his complaint against Heard, claiming it was an “elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity for Ms. Heard and advance her career.”

Depp said that the accusations against him have damaged his film career and his reputation as a public figure. He blamed Heard for his losing out on roles; four days after the op-ed was first published, Disney announced it was dropping Depp from his leading role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Heard, however, still maintains that “every sentence in that op-ed is literally true” and that she “resolved to fight for the victims of domestic violence, and to do everything in her power to fight back against the silencing of abuse victims.”

Why is this trial taking place in Virginia?

Despite the fact that both Depp and Heard have residences in Los Angeles, Depp’s legal team successfully argued that because the Washington Post is physically published in Virginia, maintains two offices in the state, and has its online edition routed through servers in the state, a Virginia court and jury was the right jurisdiction to hear his defamation case. Virginia law regarding defamation and libel claims looks to where the statement was “published,” according to Depp’s complaint. Heard’s attorneys argued to have the case moved to California because the events of this case, the witnesses, and the premises were all located in Los Angeles. They also said that Heard was never in direct contact with a Washington Post employee or in an office in Virginia to warrant the case being heard in the state.

“Johnny Depp regularly abused Amber Heard — both physically and emotionally — throughout much of their relationship,” Heard’s legal team argued in her court papers. “The vast majority of these violent incidents occurred when Mr. Depp was drunk or high or both in their Los Angeles, California home or while the couple was traveling abroad.”

Her team argued that Depp’s team pushed for this case to be heard in Virginia strategically to prevent her from using the tough anti-SLAPP protection available under California law.

Legal experts agreed that moving the lawsuit to California would have changed everything in this case and allowing Heard to take advantage of the state’s protective anti-SLAPP law would have in effect put an immediate hold on the case from the start.

“In my opinion, if this case were brought in California, I think it would have been almost dead on arrival,” said Ryan Baker, a Los Angeles litigator who has represented celebrities and entertainment companies in cases ranging from defamation to general business disputes.

What is Anti-SLAPP law?

Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) laws allow individuals faced with a defamation lawsuit — where it is alleged the purpose of the lawsuit is to intimidate and silence free speech that is in the public interest — to petition the court for protection. The statute effectively shifts the burden of proof, if the speech is defined as protected, to the party bringing the lawsuit to prove to a judge that their lawsuit has merit and that it would result in a favorable verdict for them. Both California and Virginia have anti-SLAPP statutes, but Virginia’s law does not allow defendants to invoke the protection in the early stages of the proceedings, while California permits defendants to file for the protection immediately and for the judge to hear the motion within 30 days.

Baker said that holding this defamation case in California would have afforded Heard the protection of the state’s strict anti-SLAPP law, which would have likely effectively frozen the case from the start.

“The idea is that if you are a victim and someone is suing you to shut you up and it concerns a matter of public concern, you can immediately shut them down and the judge has to consider whether the case can even go forward,” Ryan Baker said. “I think in California, this gets shot down right out the gate. In Virginia, you don’t have this early procedural opportunity to shut the case down and freeze it.”

He added that the extensive litigation in this case has backfired on Depp by bringing to light extremely personal details of the successful actor’s life.

“I think this is the poster case for, frankly, the perils of overaggressively trying to defend whatever adverse vision you have of your reputation,” said Ryan Baker. “All Johnny Depp has done through this is just make himself the really overaggressive villain.”

How is this lawsuit different from Depp’s 2018 defamation lawsuit against The Sun?

The Virginia case isn’t Depp’s first defamation lawsuit over the abuse allegations regarding his marriage to Heard.

In 2018, prior to the publication of Heard’s column, Depp sued News Group Newspapers LTD, publishers of The Sun, for libel after it published an article with the initial title “Gone Potty: How Can JK Rowling Be ‘Genuinely Happy’ Casting Wife Beater Johnny Depp in the New Fantastic Beasts Film,” according to Depp’s court papers. Depp alleged that the article gave a “one-sided and unfair account” and failed to include any denials of Heard’s claim, or mention the police report that concluded no crime had been committed or that Heard’s application for a temporary restraining order had been dismissed with prejudice.

Unlike defamation law in the United States, The Sun needed to show that the statements against Depp were “substantially true.” After extensive testimony submitted from both sides, Justice Andrew Nicol issued a 130-page opinion determining that “the great majority of the alleged assault of Ms. Heard and Mr. Depp has been proved to the civil standard” and that The Sun had shown what it published to be substantially true.

“The U.K. case involved a different legal system, and clearly a different standard of law was being applied,” said attorney Emily D. Baker, a former Los Angeles district attorney. “The determination that the judge was trying to make there was whether the allegations Heard made were substantially true enough that the publication, The Sun, was not defamatory in stating in their headline that Johnny Depp was a ‘wife beater.’”

On November 2, 2020, the U.K. judge dismissed Depp’s libel claim. Depp’s appeal request was also later denied.

What famous names are set to appear and testify?

In addition to Depp and Heard, Elon Musk, Ellen Barkin, Paul Bettany, James Franco, Amanda de Cadenet, and iO Tillett are some of the well-known individuals set to testify or provide evidence at the 2022 trial. Around 120 individuals are on the potential witnesses list. While Heard and Depp are expected to testify in person and appear in court each day, Musk, Franco, and some others listed as potential witnesses will likely testify via video link.

“This trial is going to become a spectacle,” said Emily Baker. “It’s unusual that we see a star-studded witness list in a trial. It’s unlike anything I can really remember when there’s this much celebrity involved, not just from the people involved, but the witness list. And there’s also some horrific text messages between Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany that are just appalling to read the things he says in there in anger. So it’s all, it’s, it’s all going to come out and play out very, very publicly.”

Bettany will likely have to explain the context of his shocking text messages that came to light in the U.K. case. After Depp texted Bettany in 2013 saying, “Let’s burn Amber,” Bettany responded, “Having thought it through I don’t think we should burn Amber — she’s delightful company and easy on the eye, plus I’m not sure she’s a witch. We could of course try the English course of action in these predicaments — we do a drowning test. Thoughts?” Depp responded, “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will f- -k her burnt corpse afterward to make sure she is dead.”

James Franco might be called to testify about his knowledge about Heard and Depp’s relationship. In 2014, Heard was making the film Adderall Diaries with Franco and was concerned at the time that Depp would be jealous of her having romantic scenes with Franco.

Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX founder, was paying late-night visits to Heard at Depp’s Los Angeles penthouse only one month into the marriage when Depp was out of the country filming, according to Depp’s court papers. Depp has asked Musk to reveal all his communications with Heard about Depp and anything she might have told him about their physical relationship and divorce proceedings.

What’s at stake?

Heard maintains that her op-ed was “true and accurate,” did not mention Depp by name, and was only about “what happened to her after she came forward. Based on her experiences a woman who had reported a man for violence.”

Depp has consistently denied the allegations against him. “To harm someone you love? As some kind of bully? No, it didn’t, it couldn’t even sound like me,” Depp said in a 2018 article in GQ. “Twenty-five feet away from her, how the fuck am I going to hit her? Which, by the way, is the last thing I would’ve done. I might look stupid, but I ain’t fucking stupid.”

“Amber is looking forward to getting this behind her,” a source familiar with Heard recently told Vulture. “Johnny physically abused Amber throughout their marriage, and this lawsuit is just a continuation of it. The U.K. court already ruled against Johnny when it found at least 12 acts of domestic abuse against Amber, and this case will only bring out more evidence of abuse. It will be painful, but hopefully when it’s over, a jury verdict against Johnny will send a message to the millions of women out there who suffer from intimate partner violence that they can move safely on with their lives, and so can Amber.”

“This case being brought to trial is proof that the court acknowledges the notable amount of preliminary wins, evidence and witnesses in support of Johnny,” an unnamed spokesperson close to Depp told Vulture via email. “To decline the opportunity to clear one’s name and allow someone taking advantage of the system to walk away with zero repercussions would be careless and set a dangerous precedent for similar situations in the future.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

What’s Going on With Johnny Depp and Amber Heard?