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Scenes from a Marriage

In 2020, a British High Court judge ruled that actor Johnny Depp was probably a “wife beater.” Earlier this year, an American jury disagreed. Who got it right?

· 70 min read
Scenes from a Marriage
Amber Heard and Johnny Depp at the Fairfax County Circuit Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia, on May 16, 2022. Photo by Steve Helber via Getty Images.


On December 19th, 2022, 36-year-old actress Amber Heard used an Instagram post to announce that she would not be appealing the outcome of a defamation suit won by her ex-husband, the 59-year-old Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp. The basis of that suit had been an op-ed Heard had published in the Washington Post on December 18th, 2018, beneath the headline, “I Spoke Up against Sexual Violence—and Faced Our Culture’s Wrath. That Has to Change.” In that article, Heard had described herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse” (presumably by Depp) and stated that “I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse.”

On June 1st, 2022, following a two-month trial, a jury of five men and two women in Fairfax County, Virginia, unanimously awarded Depp $15 million in damages, $10 million of which was awarded as compensation. An additional $5 million in punitive damages, arrived at over 13 hours of deliberation, resulted from their finding that Heard had acted with “actual malice.” The trial judge, Penney Azcarate, reduced the total to $10.3 million under a Virginia tort-reform law that caps punitive-damage awards at $350,000.

The jury also found that Depp—or, more specifically, one of his former lawyers, Adam Waldman—had defamed Heard in statements to the Daily Mail in 2020. Waldman accused her of confecting evidence to support her allegation of a violent confrontation with Depp at his penthouse at the Eastern Columbia Building in downtown Los Angeles on May 21st, 2016. Heard filed for divorce two days after that incident, on May 23rd. “The officers came to the penthouses, thoroughly searched and interviewed, and left after seeing no damage to face or property,” Waldman told the Mail. “So Amber and her friends spilled a little wine and roughed the place up, got their stories straight under the direction of a lawyer and publicist, and then placed a second call to 911.” Heard’s victory on this counterclaim yielded her $2 million in damages—a token amount that left her owing Depp more than $8 million.

Heard’s lawyers filed an appeal on November 23rd, but less than a month later, she declared the matter settled. Her insurance company would pay Depp a mere $1 million and that would end all the litigation. “I finally have an opportunity to emancipate myself from something I attempted to leave over six years ago and on terms I can agree to,” she wrote in her Instagram statement. “I have made no admission, this is not an act of concession. There are no restrictions or gags with respect to my voice moving forward.”

The trial in Virginia was the second of two suits brought by Depp over his alleged mistreatment of Heard. The first, in November 2020 (which he lost), was against a British tabloid that had described him as a “wife beater.” These two trials, Heard complained, had produced a social-media campaign of “vilification” that exposed her to “a type of humiliation” she could not bear to re-experience. “Even if my US appeal is successful,” she wrote, “the best outcome would be a re-trial where a new jury would have to consider the evidence again. I simply cannot go through that for a third time.”


The June verdict in Virginia shocked and appalled feminists in the media and nearly everywhere else. About five years had elapsed since New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow precipitated the #MeToo social-media movement with his lurid reports of sexual exploitation by Oscar-winning Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein over a three-decade career. In February 2020, a New York jury convicted Weinstein of five criminal charges, including rape and sexual assault, and he was sentenced to 23 years in prison. On December 19th, a jury in Los Angeles returned a mixed verdict, convicting Weinstein on one rape charge, acquitting him on another, and failing to reach a verdict on three further counts.

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