Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard: Defamation trial gets ugly, fast

Click to play video: 'Johnny Depp’s lawyer gives opening statement on Day 1 of defamation trial against Amber Heard'
Johnny Depp’s lawyer gives opening statement on Day 1 of defamation trial against Amber Heard
Actor Johnny Depp is suing ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation in connection with Heard’s 2018 Washington Post op-ed, in which she spoke out about being the victim of domestic violence. – Apr 13, 2022

Warning: This story contains details some may find disturbing. Please read at your own discretion.

Johnny Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard arrived separately at the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia on Tuesday morning for Day 1 of their much-anticipated US$50-million defamation trial.

Though the actors and former spouses both wore suits, the energy around the courthouse was anything but subdued, as the fully televised court proceedings quickly became a media spectacle.

U.S. actor Johnny Depp leaves the Fairfax County Circuit Court after the first day in the lawsuit between him and his former wife, U.S. actress Amber Heard, in Fairfax, Va., on April 12, 2022. Getty
U.S. actress Amber Heard leaves the Fairfax County Circuit Court in Fairfax, Va., on April 12, 2022. Getty

The court hearing is the latest in a very public legal battle of the divorced couple, with both Heard, 35, and Depp, 58, claiming to be victims of domestic violence. The initial court case began when Depp filed a $50-million defamation lawsuit over a Washington Post op-ed penned by Heard in late 2018 about domestic abuse.

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Heard did not mention Depp by name in the article, though in court documents he alleges his reputation and career were still “devastated” as a result.

Court proceedings began with opening statements from both actors’ lawyers, with Depp’s lawyer Benjamin Chew speaking first.

Chew told Judge Penney S. Azcarate and the seven-member jury (plus four alternates) that Heard’s claims of graphic domestic violence have painted the Pirates of the Caribbean actor as a “villain.”

Click to play video: 'Johnny Depp, Amber Heard defamation trial: Heard claims Depp sexually assaulted her'
Johnny Depp, Amber Heard defamation trial: Heard claims Depp sexually assaulted her

“For nearly 30 years, Mr. Depp built a reputation as one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, a respected artist whose name was associated with success at the box office,” Chew told the court. “Today, his name is associated with a lie, a false statement uttered by his former wife.”

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“Words matter. They paint a picture in our mind,” he told the court. “Words can evoke strong emotions and cause irreparable harm.”

Chew argued though Heard never named Depp in the Washington Post op-ed, she did not have to, as the article was published two years after she had already accused Depp of abuse. Depp’s lawyer also claimed no one “in five decades” had previously accused the actor of violence or “being abusive of any kind with a woman.”

Chew told the court that any evidence Heard was a victim of domestic violence perpetrated by Depp will be proved “a lie.”

Camille Vasquez, also a lawyer for Depp, claimed “Ms. Heard took on the role of a lifetime, she couldn’t back down.”

“She has been living and breathing this lie for years now,” Vasquez said. “She is preparing to give the performance of a lifetime in this trial.”

After a brief break, Heard’s attorney J. Ben Rottenborn delivered the defence’s opening statements.

Rottenborn read the entire Washington Post op-ed – headlined “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change” – to the jury.

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“Amber’s words in this article that wasn’t about Depp, wasn’t about her marriage, wasn’t about her relationship — was about life after that,” he said. “It’s about the freedom of speech. It’s not about the soap opera that Depp will turn this case into. It’s not about who you like better. It’s not even about whether you agree with the words that she wrote. It’s about her right to speak them.”

“Amber did accuse Johnny of abuse,” Rottenborn said. “That statement is true. You don’t need to relive every intimate detail of their marriage.”

“You don’t need to decide what happened on any individual day of their marriage to determine that the First Amendment protects that statement because it is true,” he said. “He wants you to forget that. Don’t take the bait.”

Rottenborn told the court it was Depp’s “own bad behaviour” that caused his reputation to suffer.

Another attorney for Heard, Elaine Bredehoft, also told the court about a trip to Australia she claimed was a “three-day hostage situation.” Bredehoft claimed Depp took eight to 10 ecstasy tablets in Australia before he sexually assaulted Heard and “penetrates her with a liquor bottle.”

After a break for lunch, the first witness took the stand – Depp’s sister, Christi Dembrowski.

She spoke about Depp’s childhood and claimed abuse from their parents. She also told the court she carried out duties as a “personal manager” for Depp, and said she still works with her brother.

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As the trial continues, jurors will hear from several potential witnesses, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, actor James Franco and Marvel WandaVision star Paul Bettany.

Franco and Musk were brought into the case when Depp accused both of having an affair with Heard. Both Franco and Musk are on Heard’s witness list. Bettany, who had several private and disturbing text messages with Depp read in court in 2020, will testify as part of Depp’s team.

Both Depp and Heard are also planning to take the stand in person at the trial.

Court proceedings are expected to last about six weeks with a jury verdict determining if Heard defamed Depp at the trial’s end.

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