Johnny Depp declared a 'wife beater' by the High Court at libel trial of the century

Izzy Lyons
Johnny Depp arrives at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Britain, 28 July  - NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock
Johnny Depp arrives at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Britain, 28 July - NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

It was billed as the libel trial of the century – when Hollywood veteran Johnny Depp would clear his name as a “wife beater” having been unfairly tarnished in a 2018 tabloid article. 

But what unfolded was a litany of jaw-dropping incidents of “terrifying” domestic violence, physical fights and regular drug abuse that left his ex-wife, as a British judge would conclude, “in fear of her life”. 

In a significant blow for Mr Depp’s reputation, a High Court judge ruled on Monday that The Pirates of The Caribbean star had inflicted a series of violent episodes on Amber Heard during their tumultuous four-year relationship. 

Mr Justice Nicol threw out the defamation claim brought by Mr Depp against The Sun after it published an article describing him as a “wife beater”, ruling that the newspaper had proved what was in the article to be "substantially true".

Legal experts criticised Mr Depp’s “career-ending decision” to bring the litigation in the first place, as the ruling will now ensure the “wife beater label” will “likely stay with him like a scarlet letter”.

Over 12 days in July, the Royal Courts of Justice in London heard remarkable accounts from the couple, their friends, family and even former partners piecing together the rapid, and often vicious, downfall of their once perfect Hollywood marriage. 

The couple, who met in 2009 on the set of the film The Rum Diary, married in 2015 after Ms Heard felt like she was "dating a king".

“It was like we were the only people in the world,” she said when recalling the early days of their relationship. But the fairytale had already started to darken, as the High Court would later hear. 

The couple, pictured in September 2015, a year before they divorced - TIZIANA FABI/AFP
The couple, pictured in September 2015, a year before they divorced - TIZIANA FABI/AFP

Taking to the stand, Ms Heard alleged that her ex-husband had physically and emotionally abused her on 14 separate incidents from 2013 to 2016, including throwing a magnum champagne bottle at her, explicitly threatening to kill her and headbutting her in the face.

In a 129-page ruling, Mr Justice Nicol concluded that the majority of the 14 abusive incidents alleged by Ms Heard and The Sun had occurred.

According to the US actress, the first incident happened after she joked about a tattoo Mr Depp had on his arm in tribute to his relationship with actress Winona Ryder, which originally read "Winona Forever", but was altered to "Wino Forever" after they split.

The joke resulted in Mr Depp hitting her, she told the court, for which he later cried and apologised, telling her that he sometimes turns into "the monster" when he snaps. While Mr Depp profusely denied the attack took place, Mr Justice Nicol concluded that it did. 

Over the following three years, a culture of violence and bitter jealousy dominated the couple’s lives.

Heard -  Gavin Rodgers/ Pixel8000
Heard - Gavin Rodgers/ Pixel8000

In 2014, Mr Depp pushed, slapped and kicked his wife whilst on a private jet flying between Boston to LA. The following year, while promoting a film of his in Tokyo, Ms Heard said that Mr Depp “slapped her and grabbed her by the hair”.

Mr Depp denied the incident took place because his two children were present. But in a damning rejection of Mr Depp’s defence, Mr Justice Nicol ruled that the incident did take place and that his children’s presence would not “have inhibited” Mr Depp from abusing Ms Heard just as he had done on previous occasions. 

The following year, Ms Heard claimed she was kept “hostage” while in Australia with Mr Depp, who was on location filming the new Pirates of the Caribbean. 

During the three-day trip, Mr Depp is said to have repeatedly assaulted Ms Heard after arguing over his MDMA use, during which he pushed her into a table tennis table, tore off her nightgown and attacked her, before smashing a telephone into a wall and severing the top of his middle finger.

While Mr Justice Nicol dismissed Ms Heard’s suggestion of being kept a “hostage” as “hyperbole”, he concluded that “she was the victim of sustained and multiple assaults by Mr Depp in Australia”. 

“It is a sign of the depth of his rage that he admitted scrawling graffiti in blood from his injured finger and then, when that was insufficient, dipping his badly injured finger in paint and continuing to write messages and other things. 

“I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her. They must have been terrifying. I accept that Mr Depp put her in fear of her life”.

The court also found that Mr Depp physically abused Ms Heard on her 30th birthday in 2016 when he “picked up a magnum sized bottle of champagne and threw it at her”. 

“She said he grabbed her by the hair and pushed her to the ground where she scraped her knees on broken glass,” Mr Justice Nicol wrote in his judgment. 

Reaching his conclusion on the incident, he added: “[Mr Depp] assaulted Ms Heard as he had done on previous occasions when he was stressed”.

While the torrent of abuse inflicted on Ms Heard prevailed during the three-week trial, her alleged contribution to the couple’s toxic relationship did not escape unchallenged.

Mr Depp’s legal team described her as a “compulsive liar” who relied upon “scripted malevolence" when giving evidence throughout the trial. 

They accused the actress of being violent herself and “building up a dossier” of evidence against Mr Depp because she was preparing an “insurance policy” for when the couple would eventually divorce.

Both arguments were strenuously rejected by Mr Justice Nicol, who said “no great weight” should be put on the suggestion that Ms Heard demonstrated aggressive violent behaviour. 

Ms Heard’s US lawyer praised the judgment in a statement on behalf of the actress. 

“For those of us present for the London High Court trial, this decision and judgment are not a surprise,” Elaine Charlson Bredehoft said. 

A spokesman for The Sun said: "The Sun has stood up and campaigned for the victims of domestic abuse for over 20 years.

"Domestic abuse victims must never be silenced and we thank the judge for his careful consideration and thank Amber Heard for her courage in giving evidence to the court."