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Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, and their $50 million defamation suit, explained

Why Johnny Depp and Amber Heard accused each other of domestic violence.

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp at a screening of Black Mass during the BFI London Film Festival at Odeon Leicester Square on October 11, 2015, in London, England.
Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Johnny Depp is now appealing the only win Amber Heard got in their stunning defamation trial this summer. In June, Depp was awarded $15 million in damages, including $5 million in punitive damages, which the judge capped to $350,000, the legal limit in Virginia. In total, he is entitled to $10.35 million. The jury awarded Heard $2 million, with the finding that former Depp attorney Adam Waldman had defamed her. Now, TMZ reports that Depp is appealing Heard’s win. Heard already filed an appeal on Depp’s win in July.

The counter-appeals are just the latest development in the media sensation of the Fairfax County, Virginia, trial of Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard. When the trial was in oral arguments this spring, the nation was riveted. Vanity Fair reported that as Court TV broadcast the trial, it doubled its daytime ratings. Hashtags associated with the trial have repeatedly trended across Twitter, as viewers watch and discuss the celebrity case of the year — its messiness, its scandal, the glamorous movie stars at its heart, and the question of what to believe and how much.

This was a murky, perplexing trial. While it was technically a defamation trial over a newspaper article — with Depp suing Heard and Heard countersuing Depp — at its center was one big conflict. Amber Heard said Johnny Depp abused her. Depp said Heard abused him. So what’s the truth?

Strikingly for our post-Me Too world, both the jury and the loudest voices on the internet overwhelmingly sided with Depp. That’s despite the fact that Depp already lost one version of this case in the UK. And while there’s compelling evidence that violence came from both people in this marriage, it’s far from clear that Heard was the primary aggressor.

What Depp does have is the stronger public profile. Though it’s been over a decade since he put out a true critical hit, he’s delivered enough acclaimed work over the course of his long career to earn himself a fair amount of goodwill.

In a statement, Heard attributed Depp’s win squarely to that profile. “I’m heartbroken that the mountain of evidence still was not enough to stand up to the disproportionate power, influence, and sway of my ex-husband,” she said. “I’m even more disappointed with what this verdict means for other women. It is a setback. It sets back the clock to a time when a woman who spoke up and spoke out could be publicly shamed and humiliated. It sets back the idea that violence against women is to be taken seriously.”

The star of hits like Edward Scissorhands, Donnie Brasco, and the many, many Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Depp has been nominated for three Oscars and been named People’s Sexiest Man Alive twice. For a while, at least, he was one of those people who are so bankable that they seem able to get away with anything: a white man who is also a true A-list sex symbol. He was up there in the upper echelon: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Johnny Depp.

As Depp’s film career declined over the course of the 2010s, his personal and financial troubles began. In 2017, Depp sued both his longtime business managers and his entertainment lawyer, claiming they had mismanaged his finances.

An infamous Rolling Stone profile from this period paints Depp as a fading and deluded icon, cut off from reality by his money, his fame, and copious amounts of drugs. He is, Rolling Stone declared brutally, “a punchline: bankrupt, isolated and one more mistake away from being blackballed from his industry.”

Heard, on the other hand, was just beginning to approach the point of becoming a household name when she first met Depp on the set of The Rum Diary in 2009. (At the time, both were in relationships with other people.) Over 20 years younger than Depp, she had her first major job as a supporting character in the 2008 Judd Apatow stoner comedy Pineapple Express. When The Rum Diary came out in 2011, it was a sign that she was entering a new phase of her career: playing the love interest of A-listers.

From there, Heard went on to play major roles in 2015’s Magic Mike XXL and The Adderall Diaries. And in 2017, she was cast in her biggest role to date as Mera, the queen in DC Comics’ Aquaman franchise.

All this is to say that when these two figures met, and throughout their marriage, Johnny Depp was a known quantity to the American public. Amber Heard was very much not. Moreover, their relationship coincided with Depp’s long and very public downward spiral.

By 2012, Depp and Heard had split up with their respective partners and begun dating each other. In 2014 they got engaged, and in 2015, they got married.

Then, in 2016, Heard filed for divorce. Four days later, she filed a request for a restraining order. Everything else would follow from there.

Here is your guide to the trial of Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard: what we know, what we don’t know, how everyone involved is spinning their narrative, and what it all means for the future of how we talk about gendered violence in the post-Me Too world.

Amber Heard speaks to her legal team as Johnny Depp returns to the stand at their Fairfax County trial, April 21, 2022.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AFP via Getty Images

Who is suing whom and why?

Johnny Depp sued Amber Heard for defamation because of an op-ed she published in the Washington Post in 2018. In the op-ed, headlined “I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change,” Heard never mentions Depp, but she refers to herself as “a public figure representing domestic abuse.”

Depp and his lawyers have argued, and a judge has agreed, that Heard is clearly implying that Depp abused her over the course of their year-long marriage.

Heard first publicly accused Depp of domestic violence in May 2016 when, days after filing for divorce, she requested and received a temporary restraining order on the grounds of domestic violence. Depp’s lawyer promptly issued a statement saying that Heard was lying, “attempting to secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse.”

When the pair eventually reached an out-of-court divorce settlement in August 2016, Heard withdrew her request for a permanent restraining order. The pair also issued a joint statement that bizarrely made the claim that neither of the contradictory statements each made about each other were true. On the one hand, “There was never an intent of physical or emotional harm” (so Depp wasn’t abusive), and on the other, “Neither party has made false accusations for financial gains” (so Heard wasn’t lying for a better financial settlement).

In what appeared to be a move meant to back up the second half of that joint statement, Heard, who reportedly got $7 million in the settlement, announced that she would donate her settlement to charity, dividing it between the ACLU and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. (This will come up again later.)

The announcement seemed to be sending a signal: Heard couldn’t have been lying about Depp abusing her for money, because she didn’t get any money out of the divorce. What motivation for making her accusation could she have, unless it were true?

Regardless, gossip outlets like TMZ rapidly aligned themselves with Depp and declared Heard a certain liar. In her op-ed, Heard claims that she was dropped from a movie and a fashion advertising campaign after making her accusations. Depp, meanwhile, kept working. In December 2016, it was announced that he would play a key role in the Harry Potter spinoff franchise Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

This first wave of accusations and denials all came fairly early in 2016, months before the election of Donald Trump and more than a year before the accusations against Harvey Weinstein that would send the culture exploding into a new way of talking about the abuses of famous men. Some feminist pop culture commenters (myself included) were up in arms about the story, but by and large there was little energy there. After the divorce settlement, it seemed poised to melt away like a piece of cultural ephemera, a vague memory that America largely agrees to wince away from and just not talk about too loudly, like Rob Lowe’s sex tape. Depp would keep working and Heard probably wouldn’t, and that would just be the way things went.

Then, in October 2017, the first accusations against Harvey Weinstein dropped, and the world changed. Suddenly there was intense outrage around the idea that powerful men all over Hollywood were abusing women and getting away with it. The idea that Johnny Depp’s ex-wife felt the need to get a restraining order against him was abruptly very powerful.

It’s in that atmosphere that Heard was named ambassador on women’s rights for the ACLU, and in that capacity that she wrote her op-ed in December 2018. Three months later, in March 2019, Depp filed a defamation lawsuit against her seeking $50 million. In January 2021, Heard countersued for $100 million. Heard’s countersuit looks likely to go to court later this year, also in Virginia. The trial that just concluded is Depp’s lawsuit against Heard.

Perhaps more confusingly, this case is something like a do-over. In 2018, Depp sued the executive editor and publisher of the British tabloid The Sun for libel after it referred to him as a “wife beater” in an article, bringing the case to the notoriously more plaintiff-friendly British courts.

When Depp’s suit against the Sun went to trial in London in 2020, the burden was on the Sun to show that its statement about Depp was correct. Despite the odds stacked against it, the newspaper, which called on Heard to detail 14 instances during which she said Depp abused her, succeeded. The judge accepted that “Mr. Depp put her in fear of her life,” and soon after Depp announced that he had been asked to resign from the Fantastic Beasts franchise.

Because Depp sued the Sun, however, and not Heard, that verdict wasn’t grounds to dismiss Depp’s suit against Heard. It will go forward in Virginia.

Amber Heard listens to Johnny Depp as a picture of an injury to his face is seen on a screen during their Fairfax County trial, April 20, 2022.
Evelyn Hockstein/AFP via Getty Images

Is this a case of “mutual abuse”? Or is it DARVO?

If there’s one thing that’s clear in the Depp-Heard case, it’s that not that much is clear. This story is overwhelmingly messy and complicated.

There is compelling evidence that Depp acted violently towards Heard. In the UK trial, Heard submitted witness testimony; contemporaneous text messages, emails, and diary entries; and photographs of her bruises. Taken together, they demonstrated a clear pattern of abuse, most often when Depp was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In order to fake them, Heard would have had to spend years plotting to besmirch Depp’s name. (He claims she did.)

While the details are too extensive to catalog exhaustively in this article, here’s a brief overview of some of the most discussed incidents in question.

In June 2013, one of Heard’s close female friends hugged her. According to Heard, Depp, drunk and high on mushrooms, flew into a rage, grabbed the woman’s wrists and threatened to hurt her. He then allegedly trashed the cabin where he and Heard were staying, hit Heard, and threw glasses at her. Multiple witnesses agree that Depp certainly got angry and trashed the cabin, and discovery also yielded contemporaneous texts between Depp and the actor Paul Bettany in which they fantasize together about burning Heard as a witch. “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!!” Depp texts at one point. “I will fuck her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”

In March 2015, while in Australia, Heard says that Depp spent three days on a violent tear, during which she says he repeatedly assaulted her. Both Heard and Depp agree that the tip of Depp’s finger was severed during this period (Depp says Heard threw a bottle at him and cut it off, while Heard says Depp cut it off himself from punching the wall and a plastic wall-mounted phone), and that he then used the injured finger to scrawl demeaning graffiti about Heard over a mirror and lampshade. Both Heard’s sister and her friend Rocky Pennington testified that they saw her covered in bruises and cuts shortly after the incident in question, and that Heard told them then that Depp had attacked her. Texts show Depp’s staff agreeing to say they didn’t know how he lost the tip of his finger.

“I accept that she [Heard] was the victim of sustained and multiple assaults by Mr Depp in Australia,” wrote UK Judge Andrew Nicol in his judgment. “It is a sign of the depth of his 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 and other things. I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her. They must have been terrifying. I accept that Mr Depp put her in fear of her life.”

There is also compelling evidence that Heard behaved violently toward Depp over the course of their relationship.

Depp has made public audio recordings of conversations he had with Heard over the course of their relationship. In the recordings, which were first published by the Daily Mail shortly before the UK trial in January 2020, Heard refers to hitting Depp. She says, “I’m sorry that I didn’t ... hit you across the face in a proper slap, but I was hitting you, it was not punching you. Babe, you’re not punched. I don’t know what the motion of my actual hand was, but you’re fine, I did not hurt you, I did not punch you, I was hitting you.”

Depp responds that “I just couldn’t take the idea of more physicality, more physical abuse on each other,” warning Heard that “I’m scared to death we are a fucking crime scene right now.” Heard replies, “I can’t promise you I won’t get physical again. God, I fucking sometimes get so mad I lose it.”

In another audio recording during a conversation about the Australia incident, Heard appears to mock the idea that Depp might position himself as a victim.

“I lost a fucking finger, man,” says Depp. “I had a can of mineral spirits thrown at my face.”

“You can tell people it was a fair fight, and then see what the jury and judge thinks,” Heard says. “Tell the world, Johnny. Tell them, ‘Johnny Depp, I, a man, I’m a victim, too, of domestic violence, it’s a fair fight,’ and see how many people believe or side with you.”

In April 2022, Depp’s team presented this recording at the trial in Fairfax during Depp’s testimony. Depp’s lawyer asked him how he responded when Heard proposed he tell the world he was a victim of domestic violence, and Depp replied, “I said, ‘Yes, I am.’”

Depp’s team also leaned on the difference between Depp’s reported history and Heard’s. While Depp has previously been accused of property damage and verbal threats, he’s never before been accused of the kind of violence Heard describes in her account, which previous girlfriends have described as uncharacteristic of him. Heard, however, does have some minor accusations of violence to account for.

In 2009, Heard got into an argument at an airport with her then-girlfriend Tasya van Ree. Police arrested Heard after she allegedly struck van Ree’s arm, but charges were never pressed. Van Ree has released a statement sticking by Heard, saying the incident was blown out of proportion and and chalking it up to what she describes as the cops’ misogyny and homophobia.

And Heard’s former assistant, Kate James, testified in court this April that when she asked Heard for a pay raise, Heard spat in her face.

Depp also argued that Heard hasn’t actually donated her full divorce settlement to charity as she said she would. (I told you that one would come back!) While Heard promised to give the ACLU $3.5 million, the ACLU has confirmed that she only donated $1.3 million, and that it believes at least $500,000 of that money came from Elon Musk, whom Heard briefly dated after her divorce from Depp. Depp’s team seems to be trying to imply here that Heard does actually need some money, and that maybe that was her motive all along for going after Depp.

So what do we do with these two competing narratives?

On April 14, Depp’s team called marriage counselor Laurel Anderson to the stand at the Fairfax trial. Anderson, who counseled Depp and Heard during their marriage, said she considered their dynamic to be one of “mutual abuse.”

Anderson testified that she saw Heard bruised after altercations with Depp, and that Heard told her she had initiated physical fights with Depp on multiple occasions. She said she believed, but was not certain, that Depp had also initiated physical fights with Heard. Both Depp and Heard have said that they experienced physical abuse as children, and Anderson’s theory is that their relationship pushed them back into toxic childhood patterns, with each abusing the other and neither one ultimately more responsible than the other.

However, domestic violence experts describe the concept of “mutual abuse” as divisive.

“I don’t believe in mutual abuse. I don’t believe that two parties decide to meet in the kitchen and box it out,” Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told NBC News. Glenn argues that every altercation between two people has a “primary aggressor,” and that if the other party hits back in self-defense, that doesn’t count as mutual abuse.

Another concept from domestic violence research that may prove more useful to our understanding of this case is called DARVO.

“DARVO refers to a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior,” writes Jennifer J. Freyd, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon. “DARVO stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim — or the whistle blower — into an alleged offender.”

In this case, both Depp and Heard claim that they are being falsely smeared as an abuser by the true abuser. If one of them is telling the truth, the other may be engaging in DARVO. But which one?

That may not be a question that can be answered to the satisfaction of a criminal court, beyond a shadow of a doubt. But here’s what we do know.

Johnny Depp is 23 years older than Amber Heard, exponentially more famous, and for most of their relationship was much richer than she was. (Neither one of them seems to have all that much liquid cash right now.) Of the two of them, he was the one in the position to wield power. And in the UK, where it is extremely difficult to prove a case like this, a court has already found that Depp was most likely the perpetrator and aggressor.

So if all that is the case, then why did the jury make a decision suggesting that Depp is a victim and Heard is an abuser? And why do so many people online seem to agree?

A Johnny Depp supporter outside the Fairfax County Circuit Court on April 11, 2022.
Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Why does it seem like so many people online are rooting for Johnny Depp?

The sheer volume of online support for Depp has become one of the biggest oddities of this case. On Reddit, Twitter, and TikTok, people are loudly declaring their support for Depp and their surety that Heard is a liar.

“Posters on Twitter and TikTok have overwhelmingly backed Depp, with hashtags like ‘JusticeForJohnnyDepp’ racking up nearly 3 billion views on TikTok. Similar hashtags have been tweeted thousands of times,” reported NBC News as the trial began.

“Why does it seem like the entire internet is Team Johnny Depp?” asked Vice, citing memes that refer to Heard as a “liar,” a “gold digger,” and “Amber Turd,” as well as a viral TikTok that addresses Heard with the line, “He could have killed you, he had every right.”

“To read the posts, you’d think Heard was on trial for a slew of violent crimes against Depp, not being sued over a newspaper column,” says Mel magazine.

Part of all this fury might be attributed to Depp’s and Heard’s respective positions within some distinctively toxic internet subgroups. In his newsletter, tech journalist Ryan Broderick put together a straightforward summary of the overlap. “Basically a lot of boring men think Johnny Depp is cool, [Zack] Snyder fans think Amber Heard’s issues with Depp have impacted the release of DC movies, Harry Potter adults are mad that Depp was removed from the Fantastic Beasts franchise after he was accused of domestic violence, and a lot of TERFs viciously defend anything online about Harry Potter because of J.K. Rowling’s increasingly public transphobia,” Broderick wrote.

There’s also some evidence that Depp’s team has used social media bots in the past to gin up outrage against Heard. In 2020, Heard’s team commissioned a report from Bot Sentinel, a group that uses artificial intelligence to detect troll bots. It found multiple Twitter accounts that it considered dubious, including one that posted, “Fire her from all her rolls blacklist this crazy liar,” and another that said, “I am starting a petition. To get Amber Heard blacklisted from Hollywood!”

The report doesn’t mean that every Johnny Depp supporter on the internet is actually a robot. But it does suggest that Depp’s team has a history of strategically amplifying the conversation about him to make it appear that public opinion is more united on his side than it actually is.

And they’re not alone. Plenty of conservative outlets seem to have decided that the Depp-Heard story was good for their brand, and to have devoted considerable resources to promoting it. A recent Vice report found that the Daily Wire spent tens of millions of dollars promoting ads and videos with a bias against Heard.

Depp has also become a symbol of sorts for those who want to have a conversation about male victims of domestic violence, both in good faith and in bad.

On Twitter, earnest posts about Depp abound with the hashtag #BelieveMaleVictims. The National Domestic Violence Hotline estimates that one in seven adult men in the US has been the victim of intimate partner violence, but says that men are less likely than women to report their abuse or seek out help. Supporters of Depp argue that his willingness to identify as a victim of domestic violence is a powerful gesture towards breaking that stigma.

“One can only hope that public attention surrounding the Depp trial will impart the importance of protecting oneself and believing male victims, too,” says the Washington Examiner.

Meanwhile, Mel magazine reports that in the so-called manosphere where men’s rights activists expound on the evils of feminism, Depp has become a hero. “His trial fits neatly into a tapestry of claims that men are under attack, woven alongside clumsy narratives about false rape accusations and mothers lying to block children from their fathers,” Mel says, citing comments in which Depp supporters bemoan our culture’s “disproportional focus on female ‘suffering’” and call for the destruction of “the believe all women with no evidence narrative.”

Here, the ambiguity of this case is essentially offering cover for a Me Too backlash. For those who feel that the Me Too movement went too far, siding with Depp over Heard becomes a chance to position their opposition to the movement as a principled support for male abuse victims rather than a reactionary misogynistic fury.

It’s also worth noting that Depp is the only true A-list sex symbol to face the wrath of Me Too. While many very famous and beloved men were accused of doing awful things to women in 2017 and 2018, Depp was the only one who is both a three-time Oscar nominee and a two-time People’s Sexiest Man Alive.

The culture has spent decades admiring Depp’s talent and beauty and charisma, and all of that admiration doesn’t just go away now. Depp’s fans have made a powerful emotional investment in him, and many of them are willing to leap on any little moment of ambiguity in this case as proof of Depp’s innocence. In a trial this messy, there are a lot of ambiguities.

In the end, perhaps that’s what’s most damning about the larger conversation around this trial: the inability to handle the ambiguities. Faced with a portrait of a relationship in which there’s compelling evidence of violence and toxic behavior on both sides, our culture seems unable to accept that we may simply be looking at a story without heroes. Instead, we demand a tidy narrative with a heroic redemption arc — and if the hero is a beloved, charismatic, and powerful white man, well, all the better.

It’s difficult to see Depp’s reputation fully recovering from his recent string of lawsuits. Even after Heard accused him of domestic abuse, Hollywood had plenty of cover to continue business as usual, as it worked with Depp up until he dragged the fight into the courtroom. He wasn’t fired from Fantastic Beasts, after all, until he lost his UK case. It’s not clear whether a win in the US court system will fully redeem his reputation. And Heard, who has less of an established reputation to protect her, is potentially at even more risk.

If this case proved one thing, however, it’s that Johnny Depp is still a star, and he’s still capable of commanding the nation’s attention. And for a movie star whose light is fading fast, maybe that’s enough.

Correction, June 1, 9:40 pm: A previous version of this article misstated the amount Johnny Depp was awarded in the verdict. It was $15 million. That includes $5 million in punitive damages, which was capped to $350,000 per Virginia law.

Update, June 1, 4 pm: This article was originally published on May 4, 2020. It has been updated with the jury’s verdict.

Update, November 3, 5 pm: This article has been updated with Depp’s appeal.