Opening arguments in Johnny Depp, Amber Heard defamation trial

A jury in Fairfax County on Tuesday heard opening statements in Johnny Depp’s $50 million defamation lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard — a two-hour preview of the sometimes disturbing allegations of physical abuse that the actors have made against each other.

Depp’s attorneys argued that Heard is a liar who irreparably damaged his career and reputation when she wrote a 2018 Washington Post opinion piece calling herself a survivor of domestic and sexual violence, two years after she alleged he abused her and filed for divorce and a restraining order . (They were married for 15 months until August 2016.) Heard’s lawyers countered that the actress’s op-ed is both true and protected under the First Amendment, and that Depp’s “crushing” struggles with alcohol and drug addiction have led to his career downfall; she has countersued him for defamation for $100 million.

The high-profile trial has injected quite a bit of excitement into the Fairfax County Historic Courthouse, where a jury was selected on Monday. (Depp sued Heard in Virginia because The Post’s printing press and online servers are in Fairfax County; the state is also known as having weaker anti-defamation laws.) Before sunrise on Tuesday, Depp fans, curious onlookers and journalists formed a line outside the courthouse to receive one of the 100 daily spectator wristbands to be allowed inside the courtroom.

Johnny Depp sued Amber Heard for defamation over an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post about being a survivor of domestic abuse. The trial began April 11. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

FAQ: What to know about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial

A row of news cameras set up on a lawn nearby to try to catch a glimpse of the stars, both of whom were in the courtroom, sitting quietly and only occasionally leaning over to talk to their lawyers.

During an opening statement that lasted about 40 minutes, Depp’s attorneys Ben Chew and Camille Vasquez noted that it’s likely much of the jury — seven people plus four alternates — in this civil case recognize the Oscar-nominated Depp for his work as a Hollywood actor, whom they emphasized had never had an allegation of abuse or mistreatment against him before Heard.

“Today, his name is associated with a lie, a false statement uttered by his former wife, Amber Heard,” Chew said, adding that this case is about how damaging words can be, particularly given that Depp’s career depends on his image. He showed three statements from The Post’s op-ed on the screen that he said defamed Depp, who was not mentioned in the piece. “Ms. Heard did not use Mr. Depp’s name in the op-ed. She didn’t have to.”

The actor’s lawyers said Depp wants to clear his name. They cast Heard as aggressively pursuing a romantic relationship with Depp when they met on the 2011 movie “The Rum Diary,” and after they fell in love, she became physically violent and would verbally berate him. They said she made up a story of him abusing her to keep him when he wanted to file for divorce, and when that didn’t work, she “recast herself as an abuse survivor.” They alleged that Heard made up elaborate stories and faked photos that showed her with bruises.

Vasquez said Heard’s lawyers were going to give “horrific details” designed to shock and overwhelm the jury. “It is all a lie,” Vazquez said, calling Heard a “profoundly troubled person” who was about to “give the performance of her life” during the trial. While Depp has not denied he has substance abuse issues, she said, “Struggling with drugs and alcohol does not make you an abuser.”

Heard’s attorneys, Ben Rottenborn and Elaine Bredehoft, spent approximately 90 minutes rebutting those claims, saying that Depp’s lawyers were being purposefully inflammatory to distract from the main issue of the case, which is whether the words of the actress’s Post opinion piece — which he read out loud in its entirety — are protected free speech under the First Amendment. “The answer is very clearly yes,” Rottenborn said, adding that the article also was speaking up to support victims of violence in general, and not about Depp.

Depp’s team, he said, “is trying to turn this case into a soap opera,” a six-week spectacle of the most intimate aspects of their marriage. Rottenborn said he wasn’t sure why they were making that choice, given that the jury is about to see the “real” Depp under the money, fame and pirate costume. “Amber never wanted to unleash to the public who the real Johnny Depp is,” he said.

Heard’s attorneys said that Depp notably did not sue The Post, but instead targeted Heard because he wants to humiliate her and ruin her life and career, calling Depp an “obsessed ex-husband hellbent on revenge.” They alleged Depp was physically, verbally and sexually violent, with incidents starting when they were dating, and warned the jury they were about to hear in “graphic and horrifying terms” about such abuse. Some incidents, they said, happened when Depp was blacked out from drugs and alcohol, and his worst times were known as when “the Monster” would come out.

Bredehoft, who described Depp as the one who was eager to pursue Heard when they met, described some of the graphic allegations of abuse, and said Heard was compelled to file her countersuit when Depp’s lawyer called her claims “fake” and a “hoax, “thereby damaging the actress’s job prospects; she starred in “Aquaman” and “Justice League,” and after those statements, Bredehoft said, her career “plummeted.”

The first plaintiff’s witness called on Tuesday afternoon was Christi Dembrowski, Depp’s older sister, personal manager and president of his production company. She echoed the opening statements in saying that while growing up, their mother was physically abusive toward the kids and their father, and Depp coped with it by retreating from the room and hiding away. As a result, she tested, when she saw how often Depp and Heard argued, she started booking an extra hotel room when the couple traveled so he would have a place to escape.

“I recognized what I felt to be a repeat pattern from his childhood,” Dembrowski said, adding that she did not take such measures while Depp was in a relationship with Vanessa Paradis, his partner for 14 years and the mother of his two children. Dembrowski said that when Depp was with Heard, “He just seemed so much sadder. He did not seem himself.”

Dembrowski said she was devastated upon hearing that Depp and Heard were getting married and she tried to talk him into waiting a bit longer, or at least until the prenuptial agreement could be settled, which would protect his children. (Depp and Heard did not sign a prenup.) She called him “one of the most devoted fathers I think I’ve ever seen” and said one of the hardest parts of the abuse allegations is that it affects the lives of his kids.

On cross-examination, Rottenborn, Heard’s attorney, asked about Dembrowski’s financial stake in her brother’s career, given that she draws a salary from his production company. He also wondered how devastated she was about Depp splitting with Paradis, whom Dembrowski considered a member of their family; Dembrowski said she was “a little bit sad,” but just wanted them both to be happy.

Rottenborn tried to nail down how concerned Dembrowski was about Depp’s behavior around 2014, when Heard told her that he was drinking and doing drugs. Dembrowski said that she knew her brother was drinking but had never witnessed him doing drugs, and that Heard had a tendency to make things sound more “dramatic” than they were in real life. Rottenborn inquired about a text exchange in which Dembrowski told Depp to “Stop drinking. Stop coke. Stop pills.”

Dembrowski said repeatedly that she did not remember the context of the conversation; Rottenborn asked about various other texts as well, though multiple messages were mostly redacted for the jury. At one point, Depp’s attorney called one question “outrageous,” and shortly after court was adjourned for the day.

The case, with almost 100 potential witnesses who could be called, is likely to last until late May.

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