Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s legal battle

After losing the first round – a libel trial set in the UK – Depp, 58, sued Heard, 35, for $50m (£38m) over an op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post in which she claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse. Heard has sued back, with a $100m counterclaim against Depp.

The defamation trial is expected to feature painful accusations of domestic abuse. It will be broadcast live and involve a number of high-profile witnesses, including James Franco, Paul Bettany, and Elon Musk.

As the case opened on Tuesday, here’s a look at how we got here and what might happen next. Depp and Heard started dating in early 2012, after meeting on the set of The Rum Diary a few years earlier. By 2015, they were married.

But just 15 months after they made it official, it was over.

Heard filed for a divorce and a restraining order, appearing in a Los Angeles court with a bruised cheek.

She said her then-husband – 23 years her senior – had “violently” attacked her and thrown a mobile phone at her face with “extreme force”. There were other alleged instances of harassment as well – “excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse”, she wrote in court filings, “angry, hostile, humiliating and threatening assaults”.

Depp denied the abuse.

A judge granted Heard a temporary restraining order, but hours before a civil trial over the order was to begin, she and the Pirates of the Caribbean star released a joint statement saying they had put their dispute to rest.

“Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”

Depp gave Heard $7m as part of their divorce settlement, which she pledged to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union – something Depp’s team now disputes.

For a period, all seemed civil between the former couple.

“He walked away, she walked away – that was it,” said journalist and author Cooper Lawrence, who has written extensively on celebrity culture. But then in December 2018, Heard wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post, describing her experience as a “public figure representing domestic abuse”.

“I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out,” she wrote. “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real-time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

She did not mention her ex-husband or any other alleged perpetrator by name.

But according to Depp’s complaint, these three sentences amount to defamation anyway, derailing his career and “incalculably” damaging his reputation.

“The op-ed’s clear implication that Mr. Depp is a domestic abuser is categorically and demonstrably false,” the star’s lawyer wrote in the complaint. “Her allegations… are part of an elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity for Ms. Heard and advance her career.”

Depp’s legal team successfully argued that the trial should be held in Virginia – home to two Washington Post offices and where the paper is physically published.

“It’s not uncommon for a plaintiff to choose the forum,” said Ryan Baker, a Los Angeles attorney who has represented clients in defamation cases. “But that doesn’t explain why they chose Virginia over California.”

The reason, Mr. Baker said, is probably linked to something called an Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law.

These state statutes are essentially extensions of the First Amendment, giving added protection to speech and other activities that relate to matters of public interest.

“If someone, like Amber Heard, writes something about domestic violence and spousal abuse – those are clearly matters of public interest,” Mr. Baker said. “She has some form of immunity for saying those things.”

Both Virginia and California have their own versions of Anti-SLAPP laws, but California’s are stronger. There, defendants like Heard are able to invoke the protection immediately. Virginia, by contrast, does not allow defendants to use this protection in the early phases of legal proceedings.

“In California, I think Heard would have just knocked this case out right away,” Mr. Baker said.

Depp will still have to overcome an Anti-SLAPP argument from his ex-wife. Last month, a Virginia judge ruled that Heard could raise the statute at trial, arguing her op-ed is protected speech.

“It will be a real mountain to climb” for Depp, Mr. Baker added, “he’s just able to climb it a lot later in Virginia”. Amber Heard’s legal team then presented the challenge. Yes, she had accused him of abuse but that was not what her article in the Washington Post was about. She did not name Johnny Depp, she did not write the headline and in America, there is special constitutional protection for words written in the newspapers.

Most lawyers would agree that bringing a successful libel action in America is much harder than in the UK and in the case in Britain, the judge came down firmly on the side of Amber Heard’s version of events.

Today, however, was just an overture. Jurors were warned that what was to come would be graphic, neither side said they wanted to reveal the details of their turbulent private life and celebrity friends but that is now where we are.

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