Johnny Depp's UK Libel Case Failed—And His US One is Likely Doomed Too

Johnny Depp arriving on the final day of his libel trial against News Group Newspapers (NGN), at the High Court in London, July 28, 2020. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

The summary of British judge Andrew Nicol was the vindication for Amber Heard that Johnny Depp's faithful fans never saw coming.

"Taking all the evidence together, I accept that she was the victim of sustained and multiple assaults by Mr. Depp in Australia," the judge said. "I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults [Depp] committed against her. They must have been terrifying."

This, then, was the sound of Johnny Depp losing his libel trial against The Sun newspaper last week. Britain's most popular tabloid had originally drawn Depp's ire in 2018, after it published an article that queried: "How can J.K. Rowling be 'genuinely happy' casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?" Depp objected to that characterization, and later launched legal action. The case, initially delayed by COVID, finally made it to London's Courts of Justice in July.

For Depp, the lawsuit probably seemed like a no-brainer. To other celebrities in his predicament, British courts have long been seen as a far safer bet than American courts for libel cases, because of where the burden of proof lies in each country. In the U.K., it lands on the party accused of libel—so in this case, The Sun had to prove it was telling the truth. It the U.S., the burden lands on the plaintiff to prove that the defendant made a false allegation, and that the defendant knew it was false, and had made it with malicious intent. Not only is that a much tougher prospect, but the U.S. also has first amendment rights that are unparalleled in the U.K. This is what Depp will face next year when his defamation case against Amber Heard reaches American courts.

Defamation cases have historically been so much tougher to win in the U.S. that it's resulted in what British legal experts refer to as "libel tourism." Kate Hudson was accused of this in 2006 when she sued the U.K. edition of the National Enquirer after it suggested she had an eating disorder. She settled that summer for damages and an apology. Hudson's settlement came two days after the British Enquirer had been forced to issue an apology to Britney Spears over allegations she was "ready to divorce Kevin Federline." That same year, Lance Armstrong settled a libel case out of court, after London's Sunday Times referenced L.A. Confidentiela French book that accused Armstrong of doping. (The cyclist was paid an undisclosed sum that was later paid back to the Times in 2013, after he admitted the allegations were true.)

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By August 2010, Congress was so concerned about celebrities using British courts to go after American publishers and companies, it passed the SPEECH (Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage) Act. The Act now "bars U.S. courts, both federal and state, from recognizing or enforcing foreign libel judgments unless certain requirements are met, including consistency with the U.S. Constitution."

Regardless, not only has Depp pledged to move forward with an appeal in the British courts, he has moved forward with a $50 million defamation lawsuit against Heard in Virginia. The case concerns a Washington Post op-ed that Heard wrote in December 2018 titled, "I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our nation's wrath. That has to change." This proves to be an uphill battle for Depp, not just because of the tougher American legal system, but also because of the conclusions that were made at the British trial.

British Justice Nicol made clear in his summary that he found Heard to be a much more convincing witness than Depp. One of Depp's claims was that, just before he filed for divorce, Heard "or one of her cohorts" left "human feces on the bed" for him to find. The judge concluded that that was "unlikely" and that "it was Ms. Heard who was likely to suffer from the feces on the bed, not him."

Depp also accused Heard of severing the tip of his finger during one drunken argument. The judge said he didn't believe she was to blame for the injury, and that it was "a sign of the depth of [Depp's] 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."

In related matters, the judge also pointed to a text Depp had written about Heard as evidence of Depp's anger and resentment towards her. "She's begging for total global humiliation. She's gonna get it," the 2016 text read. "I have no mercy, no fear and not an ounce of emotion or what I once thought was love for this gold digging, low level, dime a dozen, mushy, pointless dangling overused flappy fish market."

Nichol also disagreed entirely with the idea (painted in recent years by both Depp and his supporters) that Heard had accused Depp of abuse for financial gain. "A recurring theme in Mr. Depp's evidence was that Ms. Heard had ... done this as an 'insurance policy,'" the judge noted. He then pointed to Heard's decision to donate her $7 million divorce settlement to charity as, "hardly the act one would expect of a gold-digger."

Depp's U.K. libel trial, then, has achieved nothing positive for him. In addition to publicizing the sordid details of the breakdown of his marriage, his loss in court has also resulted in the actor being forced to resign from J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts franchise. (Shockingly, Depp will still receive his full salary for the project, despite only filming one scene for the third installment.)

In the end, The Sun may have won the British legal victory, but Amber Heard clearly won the moral one. That Depp wants to repeat this exercise on home soil isn't just mind-boggling, it's woefully ill-advised.