A trial over Johnny Depp’s libel allegations against his ex-wife, Amber Heard, will likely turn into a six-week libelous soap opera, Heard’s lawyers warned a Virginia jury on Tuesday.
“You’re going to see who the real Johnny Depp is: behind the fame, behind the pirate costumes,” Heard’s attorney, J. Benjamin Rottenborn, told the jury during opening statements in the civil trial. “Because Johnny Depp brought this case, all of this will come out.”
Depp sued Heard for defamation in Fairfax County Circuit Court after she wrote a opinion piece in the Washington Post in 2018 referring to herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse”.
Depp says the article indirectly defames him by referring to allegations of abuse Heard made in 2016. Depp denies abusing her.
Heard wrote an article as a defender: lawyer
In opening statements Tuesday, Rottenborn said the evidence will show that Depp physically and sexually assaulted Heard on multiple occasions. But he told the jury that they need not become arbiters of the couple’s turbulent marriage if they focus on the fundamentals of defamation law.
He argued that Heard was exercising her First Amendment rights as an advocate when she wrote the article, which focused heavily on the broad topic of domestic violence.
He also said that the 2018 article did not damage Depp’s reputation. He noted that the abuse allegations had already been public for two years, saying Depp’s spiraling career was the result of his alcohol and drug use, which made him an unreliable commodity for Hollywood studios.
“This man’s poor decisions have gotten him to this point,” he said. “Stop blaming other people for your own self-created problems.”
More than anything, though, he pointed out that the article in question doesn’t even mention Depp’s name.
‘Defamation by implication’: Depp’s team
Depp’s lawyer, Benjamin Chew, acknowledged that Depp’s name never appears in the article.
“He didn’t have to,” Chew told the jury. “Everybody in Hollywood knew exactly what he was talking about.”
Depp’s team argues that the article is an example of “libel by implication”. In the December 2018 article, Heard wrote that “two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse and felt the full force of our culture’s anger at women speaking out.”
Chew said it’s a clear reference to a restraining order Heard filed for in May 2016, just after Depp told her he wanted a divorce, in which she claimed she had been physically abused.
Chew said he showed up in court on May 27 of that year with a bruise on his face that was photographed by paparazzi. But he said the evidence will show that Heard hurt herself to ruin Depp’s reputation. She said that Depp and Heard hadn’t seen each other since May 21: she had gone on tour in Europe with her band, the Hollywood Vampires.
Heard was seen by police and others immediately after May 21 and her face had no bruises, Chew said. He said a witness will testify that he saw security footage of Heard’s sister throwing fake punches at him and the two of them laughing.
Another of Depp’s lawyers, Camille Vasquez, told the jury that Heard refuses to admit she lied and has now dug even deeper.
“She can’t back down. She has been living and breathing this lie for years,” Vasquez said. “She is going to give the performance of her life in this courtroom.”
Both Depp and Heard are expected to testify at the trial, scheduled for six weeks, along with actors Paul Bettany and James Franco and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Depp finds support and favorable laws in Virginia
Some 80 people, mostly Depp supporters, sat in the courtroom on Tuesday. Some people lined up hours in advance to get seats, but several rows were largely empty.
The courtroom fell silent a few minutes before the 10 a.m. start time when Heard entered the courtroom, through a special entrance usually reserved for the judge. But there was an audible gasp as Depp entered a minute later, again through a special entrance.
A seven-member civilian jury, plus four alternates, was selected Monday to hear the case.
Heard’s attorneys had sought to have the case tried in California, where the actors reside. But a judge ruled that Depp was within his rights to take the case to Virginia because The Washington Post’s computer servers for its online edition are located in the county. Depp’s lawyers have said they filed the case in Virginia in part because the laws here are more favorable to his case.