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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

How Johnny Depp's Defamation Case Devolved Into a He-Said, She-Said Domestic Abuse Trial

A Virginia defamation lawyer tells Jezebel what we can learn from the Depp v. Amber Heard verdict and what legal precedent it sets going forward.

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Image for article titled How Johnny Depp's Defamation Case Devolved Into a He-Said, She-Said Domestic Abuse Trial
Photo: Elizabeth Frantz (AP)

It would’ve been easy to forget that the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial was never about which party abused whom—it was a defamation trial prompted by Heard’s now-infamous Washington Post op-ed. The headline: “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change,” along with a solitary sentence were presented by the actor’s attorneys as the sole cause of Depp’s undue demise: “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.”

Over the course of six weeks, Depp and Heard’s tumultuous time together was litigated before scores of insatiable spectators—both online and packed into the Fairfax, Virginia courtroom. It didn’t take long for the information—from the startling (Depp’s violent text messages) to the sardonic (Heard alleging the substantial feces left in the couple’s bed was from their yorkies)—to become justifiable distractions from what elicited the trial in the first place: whether or not Heard defamed Depp by deliberately and maliciously writing false statements about the actor in the op-ed. 

“The whole trial, for the most part, came across to most people—I believe—as a question of which of these two sides is the real abuser,” Virginia defamation attorney, Lee E. Berlik, told Jezebel via phone interview. “Who is the better spouse? Who is the worst spouse? Do we believe Johnny or Amber? Whose side are you? But really, that’s not what this case was supposed to be about.”

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After two and a half days of deliberation, jurors ultimately concluded that both parties defamed each other. Heard maligned Depp via her op-ed, while Depp defamed his ex-wife when his former lawyer, Adam Waldman, referred to her abuse allegations as a “hoax. However, Heard was ordered to pay Depp $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive, while the actor is only required to pay Heard $2 million in compensatory damages.

“The evidence will show that the clear implication in Ms. Heard’s op-ed that you have in front of you was that she was the victim of domestic abuse perpetrated by Mr. Depp,” said Camille Vasquez, one of Depp’s attorneys, in opening statements. Throughout the proceedings, Heard’s team responded in kind with what they claimed to be photographic evidence, alleging that Depp’s struggles with addiction to drugs and alcohol including sexual assault with a liquor bottle and multiple injuries to both parties. Under oath, the couple’s marriage counselor corroborated many of the actress’s claims including instances of sexual assault—thereby offering credibility to Heard’s op-ed. Of the relationship, Hughes also described “mutual abuse,” a term domestic violence advocates find problematic, and that Heard suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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“You either believe all of it, or none of it,” Vasquez asserted of Heard’s account. By the time of closing arguments though, it wasn’t until about four minutes into her statement that Vasquez even mentioned the op-ed at the center of it all. “Either she is a victim of ugly, horrible abuse, or she is a woman who is willing to say absolutely anything,” Vasquez said before the jurors were dismissed for deliberation, skillfully leaving little room for the nuance required in conversations about domestic violence and sexual assault.

It was Vasquez’s apparent strategy in closing arguments that Berlik found particularly vexing, specifically noting her introduction: Vasquez recalled Heard filing for a temporary restraining order against her ex-husband—a move that would not only become public record by virtue of the court but documented by TMZ.

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“I’m thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’” remarked Berlik. “This is not even allowed to be about what happened in 2016. I probably would have objected at that point, because there’s a one-year statute of limitations on defamation claims in Virginia. Whenever the case was filed, he [Depp] didn’t have the option of suing for lies that Amber Heard may have told about him in 2016. His only option when he filed this case was to sue for false statements she made about him in the past year. So, the only thing you had was this op-ed.”

Berlik also highlighted the fact that the op-ed—which was ghostwritten and and reviewed by associates and attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—doesn’t specifically mention anything that may or may not have transpired in 2016. “This whole case and a lot of the evidence tended to be about all the details of what she apparently claimed back in 2016,” he said.

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How Heard lost her case in the United States, a country that often prides itself on “free speech,” has been speculated on by a number of attorneys. Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Bredehoft, blamed the public’s often cruel and sexist dissection of her client while Berlik cited location—the site of said defamation was determined to be the Washington Post’s printing press in Virginia, yet most of the alleged abuse took place in Los Angeles—and team Depp’s appeals to the emotions of the jury. Mark Stephen, an international media lawyer speculated to the Guardian that it was the latter that likely had the most impact, as it usually does in domestic abuse cases—despite the obvious fact that this was a defamation case that just so happened to involve claims of domestic abuse. “They deny that they [their client] did anything, they deny they’re the real perpetrator, and they attack the credibility of the individual calling out the abuse, and then reverse the rolls of the victim and the offender.”

Thus, it hardly came as a shock that the morning after the verdict was read, Bredehoft told the Today Show that Heard had every intention of appealing the ruling as several factors affected the trial. “She was demonized here,” Bredehoft said. “A number of things were allowed in this court that should not have been allowed, and it caused the jury to be confused.”

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She also cited Depp’s first defamation suit against The Sun, wherein he was deemed a “wife beater” in a 2016 headline following the pair’s divorce. After examining much of the exact evidence shown in the Virginia trial, the London court ruled against the actor, finding Heard’s abuse claims to be “substantially true,” in 2020.

“So what did Depp’s team learn from this? Demonize Amber and suppress the evidence,” Bredehoft said. “We had an enormous amount of evidence that was suppressed in this case that was in the U.K. case. In the U.K. case when it came in, Amber won and Mr. Depp lost.”

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Berlik explained the significance of Depp’s loss in the U.K., a country notorious for its exceptionally binding defamation laws. “In England, the person that you’re suing has to prove that what they said was true. So, when you sue, you don’t have to prove anything. You can just say, ‘how dare you call me a wife beater?’” Ultimately, The Sun was able to prove its article was factual and found that 12 of 14 alleged incidents of domestic violence against Heard did occurr.

A disturbing strategy many—namely journalists, attorneys and advocates—believe will emerge in the aftermath of this trial, is that alleged abusers or perpetrators of gendered violence will start suing victims who attempt to speak about their trauma for defamation. Examples in Hollywood are already easy to find. Depp’s longtime friend, Marilyn Manson sued former partner, Even Rachel Wood, for defamation a year after Wood publicly claimed he’d sexually abused her. Additionally, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, a music producer, sued Kesha for defamation after she publicly alleged “sexual, physical, verbal and emotional” abuse. Terrifyingly, the trend transcends that of elites and celebrities and potentially, cases of gender violence at all. Even Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old who fatally shot two people and injured a third at a protest for the killing Jacob Blake in 2020, has taken to Twitter, writing that the Depp v. Heard trial has “fueled” plans for his own future defamation suits against the media outlets who referred to him as a “white supremacist” and “murderer.”

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Make no mistake, the legal and social ramifications of this highly-publicized, heavily-scrutinized trial are already being felt. Rolling Stone’s Ej Dickson recently spoke to a number of victims and domestic violence advocates, with one of the latter claiming “hundreds” of victims have withdrawn their statements and bowed out of court cases following the verdict. Jezebel’s Kylie Cheung just reported how, for years, the threat of defamation has effectively prohibited swaths of victims of campus sexual assault from pursuing justice.

Even still, Depp’s devotees are celebratingas is the actor despite the fact that his legal woes are likely far from over (the ACLU just filed their own suit against him.) In fact, he appears to be making the best of the life his attorneys claimed Heard “ruined.” Even before the verdict was read, Depp received standing ovations at two U.K. concert gigs and was photographed in a pub as the jurors announced their decision. The range of implications aside, for too many, the trial was only a star-studded spectacle—a glorified sporting event they perhaps thought to be divorced from the reality that ordinary, everyday abusers and survivors were watching too.

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“I know for a fact all these people with their opinions haven’t even read the op-ed. How do you even have an opinion on what it implies?” said Berlik. “But the reality is, people don’t care. People just want to pick their side.”