Dueling libel claims go to trial

In December 2018, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Amber Heard published an editorial in the Washington Post calling out the societal norms that support domestic abusers and overthrow their victims. She repeated in the column that she had done two years earlier that she had suffered extensive abuse earlier in life, implying that her ex-husband Johnny Depp beat her without explicitly naming him in the play.

Chaos ensued. Disney removed Depp from his starring role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the multi-billion dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise just four days after the editorial was published. Depp sued Heard for $50 million two months later, accusing her of defaming him by portraying herself as a survivor of domestic violence. This was followed by Heard filing a $100 million counterclaim alleging Depp coordinated a campaign to smear her.

More from The Hollywood Reporter

The case is now due for trial on April 11 in Fairfax County, Virginia. Both sides have at least partially staked their careers and reputations on 12 jurors who will assess their credibility in what is essentially a “he said, she said” case. In particular, for Depp, this is his last chance in court to vindicate himself as he claims he is being boycotted by Hollywood for what he calls a hoax orchestrated by his ex-wife.

“You don’t get these huge libel suits,” says Claire Gill, an attorney who has represented celebrities and high-profile politicians in libel cases. “It’s really rare for someone to take that level of risk. You could say that suggests he may be telling the truth. The perception is ‘Why would anyone do that unless what is said about them is wrong.’ Others would say he is desperate and has no choice but to go through with it. Either way, it’s really unusual.

The relationship began in 2011 when the former couple met while filming The rum journal. Heard filed for divorce in 2016, just a year after their marriage began. She made headlines when she obtained a restraining order against Depp, accusing him of hitting her. She told The Associated Press at the time that she “experienced excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse” from her ex-husband.

Heard later dropped her charges in divorce proceedings in which she was awarded a $7 million settlement. The pair said in a joint statement at the time: “Neither party made any false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent to cause physical or emotional harm.

But the row – and the animosity – was far from over. A little after The sun published an article calling Depp a “wife beater”, Heard published a Washington Post editorial entitled “I spoke out against sexual violence – and faced the wrath of our culture. This must change.

A British court concluded in this case that The sun had shown that his claims that Depp beat Heard were mostly true. He sided with the publication that 12 of the 14 alleged incidents or assaults were proven.

In March 2019, Depp filed a defamation lawsuit in Virginia state court. He claimed the column was based on the false premise that he abused her, claiming he was in fact the victim. He pointed to newly available evidence to support his claims, including eyewitness testimony and surveillance footage he said showed Heard was uninjured shortly after she publicly claimed she was injured during the incident. a violent altercation with him.

Heard detailed numerous instances in which she says she was abused, most often when Depp was allegedly intoxicated by drugs and alcohol. One of the incidents allegedly took place in December when she told Depp she was going to leave him. He started hitting her and pushing her face into a mattress, the court filed claims. “For a moment I couldn’t scream or breathe,” she wrote in a court statement. “I was worried that Johnny was in a passed out state and unaware of the damage he was doing, and that he might actually kill me.”

One of Depp’s main claims is that Heard faked her injuries and lied about being abused to boost her career. He alleged that Heard arrived in court in May 2016 in connection with his trial against The sun in which she testified with “paint-in bruises that witnesses and surveillance footage show she did not possess each day for the previous week”.

So how will jurors assess the reliability of two people known for their acting prowess who offer conflicting accounts of their time together?

With their guts, according to judicial observers.

“As far as credibility goes, everyone has their own way of assessing witness credibility,” says Virginia defamation attorney Lee Berlik. “Are they fidgeting with their fingers? Are they looking at you? Are they attractive? The jurors just make observations on whether they turn out to be trustworthy or credible or not.

Gills says the same thing. “It’s something quite intangible. You are being asked to believe someone. It’s things like body language, the way they speak and show how they contradict each other in evidence that will count.

Heard fought to dismiss evidence that she didn’t donate her entire $7 million divorce settlement to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the ACLU. Heard said she pledged to pay the full amount over 10 years. Her lawyers say she has donated at least $950,000 to the ACLU and $850,000 to CHLA so far through anonymous donors. Heard’s attorneys argue that this is irrelevant to the essential issues of the case and will prejudice jurors. Depp counters that it affects his credibility.

While the central issue in the case is whether Heard was abused by Depp, the allegedly defamatory statements in Heard’s Washington Post column are: (1) “I spoke out against sexual violence and faced the wrath of our culture. (2) “Then two years ago I became a public figure representing domestic violence, and I felt the full force of our culture’s anger for women speaking out.” (3) “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

Judge Penney S. Azcarate, who is overseeing the case, ruled the statements were sufficient to suggest to readers that Depp had abused Heard in light of the couple’s high-profile divorce (another significant decision that could become an issue on appeal was the judge’s finding that the op-ed constituted a republication of Heard’s charges against Depp in 2016, which allowed the actor to circumvent Virginia’s one-year defamation statute of limitations).

But the vagueness of the disputed statements, which do not specify how or when she was abused, may make it difficult for Depp to justify himself.

“If I’m on the jury, all she wants to say is that at some point in the past there was some form of physical or perhaps emotional abuse on her part towards her,” said Berlik. “She doesn’t really get into the nitty-gritty or say exactly what happened. If that’s the case, then all she really needs is proof that, at a some time in the past he hit her, pushed her, yelled in her face or did something that can be considered abusive.I think Depp will have a tough time.

For Depp to win, he’ll have to prove that Heard acted maliciously when she made those comments. It means showing that Heard lied about being abused.

An order allowing Heard to use an anti-SLAPP defense, which compels the dismissal of claims challenging speeches that could be protected, further reduces Depp’s chances of victory. The actor’s worst-case scenario involves the jury dismissing his libel claims and finding in Heard’s favor on his counterclaims.

Depp has at least partially chosen to pursue Heard in Virginia, where neither party resides, because the state at the time had no anti-gag law (it was allowed because the editorial was printed at the Washington Post plant in Springfield, in Virginia). Lawmakers in February 2020 passed a new law establishing a.

McGill says both parties have proven to be somewhat unreliable narrators of their relationship, complicating the matter: “The only two people who know what happened are Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. There are all these incidents that took place in private. Will the jury believe his account of the evidence? »

Click here to read the full article.

Leave a Comment