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'He Said, She Said,' Starring Johnny Depp and Amber Heard

By Jordan Walker, J.D. | Last updated on

On April 11, the highly publicized defamation trial between Johnny Depp and his ex-wife, Amber Heard, kicked off in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Depp has already taken the stand for hours of soft-spoken testimony. Heard is scheduled to testify sometime later during the six-week proceedings. Also on the star-studded potential witness list are James Franco, Paul Bettany, Ellen Barkin, and Elon Musk (if he's not too busy buying Twitter).

Jury duty or movie premiere? Between the celebrities, fans posted up outside the courtroom, and a set of facts with the makings of an "E True Hollywood Story," this high-profile defamation trial continues to make headlines. If you want to be a spectator, wristbands are available at the court on a first-come, first-serve basis. Do they sell popcorn?

Competing Defamation Claims

Depp filed a $50 million defamation lawsuit against Heard alleging statements she made in a 2018 opinion piece for the Washington Post falsely implied he was a domestic abuser. Although the piece did not mention Depp by name, his attorneys argue the piece clearly references him and caused massive damage to Depp's acting career and his reputation.

Not to be outdone, Heard filed a $100 million counterclaim alleging Depp engaged in an ongoing smear campaign and defamed her multiple times by calling her a liar. The trial will also address her counterclaim.

Did Depp or Heard Commit Defamation?

Because Depp's lawsuit is based on the Washington Post piece, the trial is taking place in Virginia, where the newspaper is printed. To establish defamation in Virginia, Depp must prove with clear and convincing evidence:

  • Heard's statements against him were published
  • Depp's reputation and career suffered because of the false and defamatory statements in Heard's op-ed
  • Heard published her op-ed with "actual malice" knowing her allegations of domestic abuse were false

There's no dispute the statements were published. Depp asserts he lost his long-running leading role as "Captain Jack Sparrow" in Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise as a result of the Washington Post piece. He argues that Heard knew her allegations were untrue and based on lies she told to obtain a false restraining order against him in 2016. Depp testified he was the victim of domestic violence committed by Heard and recounted that the top of his finger was cut when Heard threw a vodka bottle at him.

Heard's attorneys maintain that Depp abused her on multiple occasions, often while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. They also presented recordings of Depp kicking and punching cabinets in his home.

Their former marriage counselor also said in her testimony that she believed Depp and Heard engaged in "mutual abuse."

Ultimately, the outcome of this case comes down to who the jury believes.

All the Courtroom's a Stage…

The courtroom has often been compared to the theater. The trial is a scripted production, the decision-makers are the audience, and lawyers know that acting can be used (their own acting, the performance of the plaintiff and defendant, etc.) to win. In a defamation case involving actors known for playing "Edward Scissorhands" and "Princess Mera" in "Aquaman," is it possible to win the Oscar for courtroom theatrics without looking like movie stars competing for the role of a lifetime?

A judge in the United Kingdom previously ruled Heard's claims against Depp were true in Depp's libel case against The Sun newspaper in 2020. The drama will surely continue to unfold before a decision is made in the Fairfax Circuit Court.

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