News outlets and social media alike cannot get enough of the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial. Because we can’t seem to escape this story, we’ve probably all absorbed some information on the trial; we know that Johnny Depp and Amber Heard are in court, we know that they’ve both made claims that they were abused by the other… but what is exactly at stake here? What is Depp asking for? And what lessons can we take from this?
To answer these questions, we need to go back to the beginning.
Johnny Depp and Amber Heard were married for around two years. When the couple filed for divorce in 2016, Amber alleged that Johnny was physically and verbally abusive during their marriage. Days before they went to court to negotiate the divorce settlement, Amber claimed that Johnny threw an iPhone at her head during an argument, and she filed a police report and a restraining order. She showed up to court with bruises on her face, and People Magazine published those photos. After that, Amber’s allegations against Johnny became a big topic in Hollywood press.
From 2016 to now, Johnny Depp has vehemently denied any act of violence against Amber Heard. Johnny said he was in “complete shock” when he heard those allegations and he testified in court that: “Never did I myself reach the point of striking Ms. Heard in any way. Nor have I ever struck any woman in my life.”
In August 2016, Amber and Johnny reached a divorce settlement. They said in a joint statement: “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gains. There was never an intent of physical or emotional harm. Amber wishes the best for Johnny in the future.”
However, the ACLU made an official statement saying that did not happen. The ACLU was expecting 3.5 million dollars from Amber, but to-date, they’ve received about half of that. In 2016 Amber donated $350,000 to the ACLU, then Johnny Depp donated $100,000 on her behalf, then another $500,000 and $350,000 were donated on Amber’s behalf (fun-fact, people think that $500,000 was donated by Elon Musk, who is an ex-boyfriend of Amber’s). That’s a grand total of 1.3 million dollars which, don’t get me wrong, is still a ton of money—but it’s not the $3.5 million that was committed.
An official from the ACLU said that they reached out to Amber in 2019 to ask about the next installment of her giving, and she reported that she was having financial difficulties.
Next came a cornerstone moment in Amber and Johnny’s story— it’s the moment that led to this whole messy defamation trial. In 2018, Amber wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post titled, “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” In the article, she talked about how coming forward about her experience with abuse hurt her career, and called herself a public face of domestic abuse. Now, importantly, she never mentioned Johnny’s name in the op-ed, but Johnny’s lawyers argue she was clearly referring to him as the abuser.
Tabloids jumped on the op-ed and ran with the allegations Notably, the newspaper The Sun called Johnny Depp a “wife beater.”
It’s because of this op-ed that Johnny brought the $50 million dollar defamation lawsuit against Amber. Let’s just pause here for a moment. $50 million dollars is a whole lot of money; why does Johnny Depp think he deserves $50 million for one op-ed that doesn’t even mention him by name? Let’s start by unpacking the question: WTF is defamation?
The Legal Information Institute defines it as “a statement that injures a third party's reputation.” It’s interesting to think that all of these cast of characters in the courtroom— lawyers, judges, a jury, stenographers, press, are all working to answer the question of whether Amber Heard damaged Johnny Depp’s reputation. It seems like that’s more a case for the court of public opinion than a court of law. But here’s the thing— in defamation suits, the question really is whether or not damage to the complainant’s reputation cost them money. And that’s what Johnny is arguing.
According to Johnny, this op-ed ruined his reputation, and therefore, his career. Can you imagine a big media company like Disney— a company that positions itself as a family-friendly company— casting an actor who has been branded as a “wife beater”? That would be a disaster, right? Well, that’s apparently exactly what happened.
Pirates of the Caribbean, a franchise that had historically starred Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, is a Disney production. Johnny’s talent manager testified that Johnny had a verbal agreement with Disney to do a new Pirates of the Caribbean film for $22.5 million. But in early 2019, after the op-ed came out, Disney told Johnny they were going to go in a different direction for the film. Johnny Depp was also asked by Warner Bros to resign from the Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts franchise. And that puts us, conservatively, at $50 million in lost wages.
But Amber wasn’t the first person Johnny took to court. In 2018, Johnny brought a defamation suit against The Sun newspaper for that story calling him a “wife beater.” Johnny lost that case. And notably, a judge found that there was “overwhelming evidence” that Johnny had assaulted Amber repeatedly during their marriage.
To complicate things even further, the jury in the current trial is also considering a countersuit from Amber who says that Johnny defamed her when his former lawyer made a statement that her domestic abuse claims were an orchestrated hoax.
Again— it feels significant to me that a judge in the UK said there was overwhelming evidence of Johnny assaulting Amber. But Johnny has also alleged that Amber was abusive, and cited one instance when Amber allegedly threw a vodka bottle during a fight and a shard of glass severed one of his fingers. The couple’s marriage counselor, Laurel Anderson, said she saw “mutual abuse” in the relationship, but, again, they both have denied each other’s claims.
So this question of the truth of the matter, I can’t answer. In fact, no one can. No one knows what happened between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. To me, it sounds like there’s evidence that they were both abusive towards each other… but from what I can tell, it’s a lot of he-said she-said. And it’s nearly impossible to find resolution and truth in hearsay.
The lesson I take away from this trial is to keep meticulous records and documentation in situations that don’t feel right. If that situation turns into a court case— be it for a divorce, wrongful termination, a squabble with your landlord— you need records. If Amber and Johnny had legitimate records of their claims of abuse, maybe we’d actually know the truth of their story. Learn from their mistakes. I think it’s safe to say that going to court will never be fun… but it can be less shitty, if you have strong documentation to help your case.
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