Johnny Depp Loses Court Case Against Newspaper That Called Him a ‘Wife Beater’

LONDON — Johnny Depp on Monday lost his court case against a British newspaper that called him a “wife beater” and claimed there was “overwhelming evidence” that he had assaulted the actress Amber Heard repeatedly during their marriage.

Mr. Depp’s assaults included head-butting Ms. Heard, repeatedly hitting her and tearing out clumps of her hair, wrote Andrew Nicol, the British judge who heard the case, in a ruling issued online on Monday. In dismissing the case, he said the defendants had shown that what they published was “substantially true.”

The assaults “must have been terrifying,” the judge wrote regarding incidents in March 2015 in Australia, in which Ms. Heard said that Mr. Depp assaulted her several times, including smashing a telephone beside her face. “I accept that Mr. Depp put her in fear of her life,” the judge wrote.

The judge also acknowledged the risk Ms. Heard had taken in speaking up about the violence. “I also accept that Ms. Heard’s allegations have had a negative effect on her career as an actor and activist,” he said.

Women’s rights groups in Britain praised the decision. “This is an important ruling and one which we hope sends a very powerful message: Every single survivor of domestic abuse should be listened to and should be heard,” Lisa King, a spokeswoman for Refuge, a British charity for survivors of domestic violence, said in a statement.

When the case was heard in July, it often seemed as if it were occurring solely to generate lurid newspaper headlines and movie-world gossip. Countless unsavory details of Mr. Depp and Ms. Heard’s marriage were aired.

But it was actually a libel case in which Mr. Depp, 57, was suing News Group Newspapers, the publishers of The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, and Dan Wootton, that newspaper’s executive editor, over a 2018 article that said there was “overwhelming evidence” that Mr. Depp had assaulted Ms. Heard.

The article called Mr. Depp a “wife beater” and urged the author J.K. Rowling to intervene and have Mr. Depp removed from the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movie series, based on her book.

The newspaper’s legal team argued that the accusations in the article were “accurate and true.” Ms. Heard, 34, testified on the newspaper’s behalf and said in pretrial documents that Mr. Depp had assaulted her on 14 occasions during their relationship starting before they were married. Mr. Depp denied all of the claims, but the judge found that most of them did occur, citing a range of text messages from Mr. Depp among the evidence.

Mr. Depp is also suing Ms. Heard for defamation in the United States over an opinion article that she wrote for The Washington Post under the headline “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” Mr. Depp says the article led to his being dropped from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise.

It was not immediately clear whether the British judge’s ruling would have any implications for that case.

Jenny Afia, a partner at Schillings, the British law firm that represented Depp, said in an emailed statement that the American proceedings were “ongoing.” She called the British decision “as perverse as it is bewildering” and said that “it would be ridiculous for Mr. Depp not to appeal.”

The pair met in 2011 while making “The Rum Diary,” a movie based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson, and married in February 2015. Ms. Heard filed for divorce just over a year later. She also obtained a temporary restraining order against the actor after accusing him of hitting her.

Ms. Heard later withdrew the claim, and in January 2017 the pair agreed to a $7 million divorce settlement. “There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm,” they said in a statement at the time.

During the case, Ms. Heard said that the first time Mr. Depp assaulted her was in 2013, before their marriage. On that occasion, she said, he hit her three times after a discussion about one of his tattoos. The tattoo originally read “Winona forever,” in reference to Winona Ryder, Mr. Depp’s former partner, but he had it changed to read “Wino forever.”

“It felt like my eye popped out,” Ms. Heard said of the third strike, saying that it knocked her off balance and to the floor.

Sasha Wass, a lawyer representing the newspaper, told the court in her closing argument that Mr. Depp’s violence had come about because of a dislike of Ms. Heard’s independence, as well as his alcohol and drug use. Ms. Wass said that Mr. Depp had used so many substances that “he may not even have been aware of the extent of his violence and terrifying behavior.”

The judge agreed with most of that characterization, repeatedly highlighting Mr. Depp’s jealousy at potential love rivals and his drug use that impaired his memory.

During the hearings, Mr. Depp’s team claimed that Ms. Heard was actually the abuser, provoking arguments and, in one case in an argument in Australia, throwing a vodka bottle at him, severing his fingertip. Ms. Heard testified that Mr. Depp had severed his own fingertip in the argument while smashing a phone next to her head.

In his ruling, the judge devoted 17 pages to that fight. He noted that Mr. Depp had admitted that after sustaining the injury, he painted graffiti with his own blood on the walls of a house the couple was renting. “It is a sign of the depth of his rage,” the judge wrote.

“What exactly caused the injury is uncertain,” he said, but added, “it may well be that Mr. Depp accidentally cut his finger on a piece of broken glass.”

Mr. Depp’s team also portrayed the accusations as a hoax that Ms. Heard had constructed as an insurance policy in case the marriage broke down. “She was, according to this scenario, nothing more than a gold-digger,” Justice Nicol wrote in his ruling. “I do not accept this characterization of Ms. Heard,” he added, pointing out she had given her $7 million divorce settlement to charity.

“Her donation is hardly the act one would expect of a gold-digger,” the judge said.

Harriet Wistrich, the director of the Center for Women’s Justice, a British organization, said in an email that she was “very relieved that the judge has rejected some of the common tropes used to undermine victims of domestic violence, such as ‘She was motivated to stay with him for the money’ or ‘If he was violent, why didn’t she leave?’”

“We hope the outcome of this case will serve as a warning to wealthy men who seek to use the courts to silence women who speak out about abuse,” Ms. Wistrich added.

Ms. Heard acknowledged having once hit Mr. Depp, but told the court that she had been trying to protect her sister, whom she thought the actor was about to push down some stairs. “I will never forget it, because it was the first time after all these years that I actually struck him back,” Ms. Heard said.

After the ruling was issued on Monday, The Sun said in a statement, “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.”

Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer for Ms. Heard, said the actress was “unable to comment on the case due to the ongoing U.S. proceedings.” But Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, Ms. Heard’s American lawyer, said in a statement that the judgment was “not a surprise.”

“We are committed to obtaining justice for Amber Heard in the U.S. Court and defending Ms. Heard’s right to free speech,” Ms. Bredehoft said.

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