Inside Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's legal battle

By Holly Honderich
BBC News, Washington

Published
Actress Amber Heard and actor Johnny Depp arrive at the 27th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 02, 2016 in Palm Springs, CaliforniaImage source, Getty Images
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The pair divorced in 2016, just 15 months after getting married

The sequel to Johnny Depp and ex-wife Amber Heard's bitter legal battle has come to Virginia.

After losing the first round - a libel trial set in the UK - Depp, 58, sued Heard, 35, for $50m (£38m) over an op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post in which she claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse. Heard has sued back, with a $100m counterclaim against Depp.

The defamation trial is expected to feature painful accusations of domestic abuse. It will be broadcast live and involve a number of high-profile witnesses, including James Franco, Paul Bettany and Elon Musk.

As the case opened on Tuesday, here's a look at how we got here and what might happen next.

The basics

Depp and Heard started dating in early 2012, after meeting on the set of The Rum Diary a few years earlier. By 2015, they were married.

But just 15 months after they made it official, it was over.

Heard filed for a divorce and a restraining order, appearing in a Los Angeles court with a bruised cheek.

She said her then-husband - 23 years her senior - had "violently" attacked her and thrown a mobile phone at her face with "extreme force". There were other alleged instances of harassment as well - "excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse", she wrote in court filings, "angry, hostile, humiliating and threatening assaults".

Depp denied the abuse.

A judge granted Heard a temporary restraining order, but hours before a civil trial over the order was to begin, she and the Pirates of the Caribbean star released a joint statement saying they had put their dispute to rest.

"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."

Depp gave Heard $7m as part of their divorce settlement, which she pledged to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union - something Depp's team now disputes.

Why is Johnny Depp suing Amber Heard?

For a period, all seemed civil between the former couple.

"He walked away, she walked away - that was it," said journalist and author Cooper Lawrence, who has written extensively on celebrity culture.

Image source, Getty Images
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Depp, pictured outside court in London, has denied all abuse

But then in December 2018, Heard wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post, describing her experience as a "public figure representing domestic abuse".

"I felt the full force of our culture's wrath for women who speak out," she wrote. "I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse."

She did not mention her ex-husband or any other alleged perpetrator by name.

But according to Depp's complaint, these three sentences amount to defamation anyway, derailing his career and "incalculably" damaging his reputation.

"The op-ed's clear implication that Mr Depp is a domestic abuser is categorically and demonstrably false," the star's lawyer wrote in the complaint. "Her allegations… are part of an elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity for Ms Heard and advance her career."

Why is the trial in Virginia?

Depp's legal team successfully argued that the trial should be held in Virginia - home to two Washington Post offices and where the paper is physically published.

"It's not uncommon for a plaintiff to choose the forum," said Ryan Baker, a Los Angeles attorney who has represented clients in defamation cases. "But that doesn't explain why they chose Virginia over California."

The reason, Mr Baker said, is probably linked to something called an Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law.

These state statutes are essentially extensions of the First Amendment, giving added protection to speech and other activities that relate to matters of public interest.

"If someone, like Amber Heard, writes something about domestic violence and spousal abuse - those are clearly matters of public interest," Mr Baker said. "She has some form of immunity for saying those things."

Image source, Getty Images
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In 2018, Amber Heard described feeling "culture's wrath" as a victim of domestic abuse

Both Virginia and California have their own versions of Anti-SLAPP laws, but California's are stronger. There, defendants like Heard are able to invoke the protection immediately. Virginia, by contrast, does not allow defendants to use this protection in the early phases of legal proceedings.

"In California, I think Heard would have just knocked this case out right away," Mr Baker said.

Depp will still have to overcome an Anti-SLAPP argument from his ex-wife. Last month, a Virginia judge ruled that Heard could raise the statute at trial, arguing her op-ed is protected speech.

"It will be a real mountain to climb" for Depp, Mr Baker added, "he's just able to climb it a lot later in Virginia".

Haven't we been here before?

Sort of.

In 2018 - before Heard's op-ed was published - Depp sued News Group Newspapers Ltd, publishers of British newspaper The Sun for libel over an article that referred to him as a "wife beater".

But while this legal battle was between Depp and The Sun, the three-week trial in London looked more like a feud between former spouses.

Depp's odds of success were better in England than the US, where a defamed person has to prove what was said about them isn't true.

Across the Atlantic it's the opposite: the burden of proof rests with the alleged slanderer, who has to prove what they said is true.

Still, he lost. A British judge ruled that the "great majority" of Heard's accusations of abuse could be proven to the civil standard - meaning the abuse was more likely than not to have occurred.

Last year, Depp's appeal in that case was denied.

Who will be there?

There are around 120 people on the potential witnesses list. It's a star-studded assortment: Elon Musk, Ellen Barkin, Paul Bettany and James Franco.

The Tesla CEO is expected to testify on behalf of Heard. Musk, who reportedly dated Heard between 2016-18, offered to provide "24/7 security" to the Justice League and Aquaman star to protect her from Depp, according to text messages read at the London libel trial. Franco, too, is expected to speak on Heard's behalf. The actress has said she confided in Franco about bruises she sustained in an alleged fight with Depp.

Paul Bettany, who has called Depp the "kindest, gentlest" man he knows, will take the side of his friend. Bettany will probably face questions about text messages exchanged between him and Depp in 2013.

"It's going to be a circus," said journalist Cooper Lawrence.

"Now we have to hear from all these really famous people because they were witness to all of this, they were there for it," she added.

Image source, Getty Images
Image source, Getty Images
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Mobs formed daily during Depp's libel trial in London

The upcoming battle - expected to last up to six weeks - will in many ways be a rerun of the London trial, exposing lurid details about Depp and Heard's former relationship, with accusations of abuse aimed at both sides.

Heard is sure to repeat claims of verbal and physical assault by a volatile Depp throughout their relationship. Depp, in turn, will probably return to his assertions that Heard was the aggressor and has fabricated her account as a victim for financial and reputational gain.

"I don't think either one of them comes out of this holding their heads high," Ms Lawrence said.

Indeed, whatever the legal outcome, Depp's decision to aggressively litigate has ensured an immense amount of attention is trained on his personal life.

"It seems to me that his strategy may be backfiring," Mr Baker said. "There are now endless opportunities for a peanut gallery to form. At the end of the day, is it better just to move on?"