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Nixing Depp Libel Suit, UK Judge Credits Domestic-Abuse Allegations

In a major blow to actor Johnny Depp’s reputation-saving legal campaign, a British judge found substantial truth Monday in a tabloid’s calling him a “wife beater.”

LONDON (CN) — Johnny Depp has spent the past two years contending that he never abused Amber Heard while they were married. But on Monday, a British court ruled that the Sun tabloid newspaper did not libel the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star by labeling him a “wife beater.” 

Following a high-profile trial in London that included lurid — and irreconcilable — testimony where Depp and Heard each accused the other of abuse, Justice Andrew Nicol said the publishers had proved that what they wrote was “substantially true.” Depp’s lawyers said they would appeal the decision. 

“I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms. Heard by Mr. Depp have been proved to the civil standard,” Nicol wrote in his ruling. 

The case targeted News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and the newspaper’s executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an April 2018 article that accused Depp of assaulting Heard.  

A lawyer for Depp, 57, described the decision as “perverse as it is bewildering.” 

“The judgment is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr. Depp not to appeal this decision,” Jenny Afia said in a statement. 

The Sun called the decision a “stunning victory for press freedom” and said that it had stood up and campaigned for victims of domestic abuse for more than 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,” a spokesperson for the tabloid said in a statement. 

This resolves one of two lawsuits, as Depp is also suing Heard in Fairfax, Virginia. The U.S. lawsuit, filed in March 2019, focuses on an op-ed written by Heard in which she described experiencing repercussions after speaking out about domestic abuse. Published in The Washington Post, the editorial never mentioned Depp, but the actor’s lawsuit contends Heard was talking about him. Depp wants $50 million in damages, and the case is set for trial in May 2021.  

Heard filed a counterclaim in August asking for $100 million in damages and declaring that Depp or his representatives orchestrated a smear campaign, accusing her of lying and committing perjury. She contends she suffered rampant physical violence and abuse at Depp’s hands before and during their marriage. Depp and Heard met on the set of 2011 comedy “The Rum Diary” and married in Los Angeles in 2015. They separated the following year and divorced in 2017. 

“Very soon, we will be presenting even more voluminous evidence in the U.S.,” said Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, Heard’s attorney in the U.S. 

Depp's attorney in Virginia, Benjamin Chew, remarked, "Mr. Depp is looking forward to moving ahead in Fairfax."  

At the heart of the Sun’s characterization of Depp as a “wife-beater” were allegations it printed that the actor had assaulted Heard 14 times in locations around the world, including a “three-day hostage situation” that Heard said took place in Australia while Depp was filming a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. 

Heard, 34, said the abuse was fueled by Depp’s drug and alcohol use and that he could turn into “the monster” when under the influence. She alleged that at various times between 2013 and 2016 he hit, slapped and shoved her, pulled her hair and threw bottles at her. 

Depp acknowledged in court taking marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and magic mushrooms, and became addicted to opioid painkillers. But added: “I am certainly not a violent person, especially with women.” 

In a trial that included a four-month hiatus due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, former romantic partners of Depp’s including Vanessa Paradis and Winona Ryder testified that he was nonviolent.

Heard chronicled acts of violence from early on in their relationship. Depp branded the allegations “sick” and a “hoax” and claimed Heard was the aggressor during their relationship. He said that Heard hit him, even severing the tip of his finger with a thrown vodka bottle during an altercation in Australia during filming of a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. 

Heard insisted she was telling the truth and said she had spoken out reluctantly. 

“What woman has ever benefited from being a victim of domestic violence?” she asked in court. 

Dismissing Depp’s claim that Heard had “constructed a hoax,” Judge Nicol found that 12 episodes of domestic violence had occurred. 

“I do not accept this characterization of Ms. Heard,” the judge wrote, adding that he accepted her evidence that the allegations she made against one of the world’s most popular actors have “had a negative effect on her career as an actor and activist.” 

Afia, representing Depp, said that, “we hope that in contrast to this case, the ongoing libel proceedings in America are equitable, with both parties providing full disclosure rather than one side strategically cherry picking what evidence can and cannot be relied upon.” 

Lisa King, director of communications and external relations at the charity Refuge, which provides support for victims of domestic violence, expressed hope that the ruling sends “a very powerful message” that every single survivor of domestic abuse “should be listened to and should be heard.” 

The ruling represents a big blow to Depp’s reputation and to his finances that could seriously damage his lucrative movie career.  

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at the law firm Howard Kennedy, called the decision “absolutely devastating” for Depp. 

“Johnny Depp is only going to be able to rehabilitate himself if he accepts this judgment,” he added. 

But for the time being, both Depp and Heard continue landing parts. Heard, who starred in “Aquaman,” will be in the sequel, according to the website IMDB. She was also cast in the television series, “The Stand.” Depp is reprising his role in the third installment of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”  

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