Former “Pirates of the Caribbean” star Johnny Depp and “Aquaman” actor Amber Heard are back in court to decide whether Heard libeled her ex-husband in 2018 by writing an op-ed that he believes falsely portrayed him as a domestic abuser.
And Heard has filed a countersuit against Depp that accuses his lawyers of defaming her.
The new trial, which is expected to last more than a month, is the latest legal battle between the famous exes, who both made appearances in court this week.
Jury selection in the case began in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia on Monday. A civil jury of seven members and four alternates was selected to hear the case during a trial presided over by Judge Penney S. Azcarate, according to the Associated Press. Opening statements were made Tuesday.
Here’s what you need to know to catch up on the case.
Who are the key players?
Depp, 58, and Heard, 35, began dating in 2012 after meeting during the filming of 2011’s “The Rum Diary,” based on the Hunter S. Thompson novel of the same name. That same year, Depp separated from Vanessa Paradis, his girlfriend of 14 years, with whom the Academy Award nominee has two children.
The global superstar married Heard in February 2015, but the marriage lasted less than two years.
She filed for divorce in May 2016 citing irreconcilable differences. That’s also about the time she first publicly accused Depp of domestic violence — allegations that Depp denied. She also brought a photo of herself with a bruised face to court, which got a judge to order that Depp stay away from her.
“Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love,” the actors said in a joint statement released after Heard dismissed her restraining-order petition. “Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.”
They announced a divorce settlement in August 2016 and by January 2017, a judge finalized the acrimonious split. Still, they continued to publicly bicker about their tumultuous relationship, including Heard’s decision to donate her $7-million settlement to the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization for which she is an ambassador on women’s rights.
Wasn’t there a previous lawsuit?
Yes, in Britain, but it wasn’t directly against Heard.
In November 2020, a high court in the U.K. rejected Depp’s libel lawsuit against the publisher of the British tabloid the Sun, which called him a “wife beater” in an article.
The three-week trial included testimony from Depp and Heard, who presented scandalous conflicting testimony about their turbulent years together — including admissions of heavy drug use by Depp and allegations of violence on both sides.
In March 2021, Depp’s attempt to appeal the verdict was rejected. After his U.K. case was dismissed, the Hollywood Vampires rocker was pushed out of his multi-film role in Warner Bros.’ “Fantastic Beasts 3″ and resigned at the studio’s request.
What did Heard write in the op-ed at the center of the current case?
In December 2018 — following the #MeToo movement and amid the contentious confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — Heard wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post titled: “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.”
Though she didn’t name Depp in her piece, the “Justice League” actor said that in 2016 she “became a public figure representing domestic abuse.” She reflected on her own experiences with abuse — beginning at a young age — and advocated for Congress to “reauthorize and strengthen” the Violence Against Women Act “to bolster and build institutions protective of women.”
“I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out,” she wrote. “Friends and advisers told me I would never again work as an actress — that I would be blacklisted. A movie I was attached to recast my role. I had just shot a two-year campaign as the face of a global fashion brand, and the company dropped me. Questions arose as to whether I would be able to keep my role of Mera in the movies ‘Justice League’ and ‘Aquaman.’
“I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse,” she wrote.
Heard alleged that she had to change her phone number weekly because of death threats, rarely left her apartment for months and was pursued by camera drones and photographers.
What’s this latest lawsuit about?
Not long after the op-ed was published, Depp brought a $50-million defamation lawsuit against Heard in March 2019 over the article.
The U.S. complaint, filed in the Circuit Court of Fairfax, said that, while Depp was not named in the Post article, it was clear that Heard and other media outlets reporting on the piece were talking about him. The lawsuit called her ongoing allegations of domestic abuse “categorically and demonstrably false,” and said that Depp never abused Heard.
“Her allegations against him were false when they were made in 2016. They were part of an elaborate hoax to generate positive publicity for Ms. Heard and advance her career,” the lawsuit said. It also alleged that “she is the perpetrator” and noted that she had been previously arrested on suspicion of violently abusing her former domestic partner.
The suit said Depp’s reputation and career were devastated when Heard first accused him of abuse in 2016 and that the op-ed led to him suffering a new round of financial losses and “public scorn,” including being dropped from his iconic role as Capt. Jack Sparrow in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
Heard responded to Depp’s lawsuit with a $100-million counterclaim of her own, which alleged the “Edward Scissorhands” star coordinated a campaign aimed at smearing her.
Her lawyers also argued that Heard’s op-ed addressed matters of public concern (such as legislation), whereas Depp’s statements about her did not and should not be protected under the First Amendment.
Who else is involved?
Both Depp and Heard are expected to take the stand again during this trial, and subpoenas have been served to several individuals, including divorce lawyer Laura Wasser; Depp’s publicist, Robin Baum; Heard’s talent agent, Jessica Kovacevic; and Heard’s ex-girlfriend Tasya van Ree.
Actors Paul Bettany and Ellen Barkin, SpaceX boss Elon Musk and actor James Franco, who Depp has accused of having an affair with Heard, are also on the witness lists.
Some will appear in person, while others will appear through video services.
Why is it taking place in Virginia?
The case was originally filed in Virginia, and Heard’s lawyers have tried to move it to California — where they live and where anti-SLAPP provisions (strategic lawsuit against public participation) are stronger.
But the Virginia judge ruled that Depp is within his rights to bring the case in Virginia because the Washington Post’s online editions are published through servers located in Fairfax County.
Depp’s lawyers have also said they filed the lawsuit there in part because the laws are more favorable to their case. Last month, Depp’s attorney, Benjamin Chew, sought to bar Heard’s lawyers from claiming immunity and argued that anti-SLAPP rules are not designed to interfere with private disputes, such as Depp’s contention that his ex-wife defamed him, the Associated Press reported.
Heard’s lawyer, Elaine Bredehoft, argued that her client’s Post article didn’t mention Depp by name and that it addressed an issue of public concern: preventing domestic violence.
Judge Azcarate ruled against Depp, but that doesn’t mean Heard has immunity for what she wrote. Her legal team can make that argument to a jury as part of her defense.
Times staff writer Christie D’Zurilla and the Associated Press contributed to this report.