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Thursday October 22nd, 2020 8:46AM

Stakes high as Depp's libel case against UK tabloid closes

By The Associated Press
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LONDON (AP) — Johnny Depp’s libel case against a British tabloid that accused him of abusing ex-wife Amber Heard was wrapping up Tuesday after three weeks of court hearings that dissected a toxic celebrity love affair.

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” star is suing News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and the newspaper’s executive editor, Dan Wootton, at the High Court in London over an April 2018 article that called him a “wife-beater.”

In closing arguments, Depp's lawyer, David Sherborne, said the actor strongly denied "this reputation-destroying, career-ending allegation.”

Once Sherborne is finished, judge Andrew Nicol will retire to sift claim and counterclaim as he considers his verdict. He is expected to hand down his ruling in several weeks.

WHAT IS THE JUDGE DECIDING?

Neither Depp nor Heard is on trial, though it has been easy to forget that during a case that raked over messy details of the couple’s volatile relationship.

Depp is the claimant in the civil case, NGN and Wootton are the defendants and Heard is their main witness. To defeat Depp’s libel claim, the newspaper must persuade the judge that, on the balance of probabilities, its story was accurate.

NGN’s lawyer, Sasha Wass, said in her summing-up that there was no doubt Depp “regularly and systematically abused his wife" and so the “wife-beater” label was justified.

But Sherborne said The Sun's article — which urged J.K. Rowling to have Depp fired from the movie version of her book “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them" — gave the false impression Depp had been “tried, convicted and sentenced” for domestic violence.

“Acting as both judge and jury, the defendants plainly and squarely state that Mr. Depp is guilty (of a) series of serious and violent criminal offenses," he said.

WHAT IS IN DISPUTE?

The two sides agree that the relationship between Depp and Heard, which began after they met on the set of 2011 comedy “The Rum Diary,” soured long before they divorced in 2017. Texts, emails and recordings attest to the increasingly bitter relations between Depp, now 57, and the 34-year-old model and actress.

But they disagree completely over who started and escalated their fights.

Depp denies Heard’s claim of 14 separate incidents in which he allegedly hit, slapped and shoved her, pulled her hair and threw bottles at her “like grenades.” The judge was shown photos of Heard with black eyes, red marks on her face and an injured scalp — alleged evidence of Depp’s violence.

Depp said the photos were part of a “dossier” of fake evidence and claimed that Heard hit him, even severing the tip of his finger with a thrown vodka bottle. Under cross-examination Depp admitted headbutting Heard during a tussle, but said it was by accident as he tried to stop her punching him.

Heard acknowledged having a short temper and said she punched Depp once in March 2015. But she said it was to prevent him hitting her sister.

WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?

The trial has provided an up-close and often unflattering look at Hollywood stardom, revealing details of Depp's life of wealth, luxury, emotional turmoil and substance abuse.

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at law firm Howard Kennedy, said the sensational case “has all of the hallmarks of the Roman arena.”

“People will remember this case not for the results, but for the evidence — the rather nasty, gory evidence — that was involved,” he said.

The settings for the disintegrating relationship were as glamorous as the allegations were sordid. The alleged assaults took place on Depp’s private island in the Bahamas, a Los Angeles penthouse, a luxury train and a private jet.

Depp said in the witness box that he had made $650 million since he joined the lucrative “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise — and ended up $100 million in debt after his financial advisers neglected to pay his taxes for 17 years. Friends described Depp as a generous big spender, and he said he’d spent $5 million sending the ashes of his literary hero, drug-fueled journalist Hunter S. Thompson, into space.

Whichever spouse was to blame, the relationship left a trail of destruction. Damage to a rented house in Australia where the couple had an altercation was estimated at more than $100,000. The couple’s downtown L.A. penthouse was trashed during another argument.

The low point of the relationship, according to Depp, came when excrement was found in a bed at the penthouse. Heard blamed one of the couple’s two Yorkshire terriers, but Depp suspected Heard or one of her friends was to blame.

WHO ARE THE WINNERS AND LOSERS?

British libel law is widely considered to favor claimants over defendants, but Depp could end up a loser even if he wins.

Depp said he sued The Sun because his career had been harmed by Heard’s allegations. But the case has amplified the claims for millions of people around the world, whatever the judge ends up deciding.

“It almost beggars belief that anyone rational has taken this case to court,” Stephens said. “Now, I know that many people say it’s all about vindication. It’s all about proving he’s not a wife beater. But the stakes are very, very high for everybody. And at some level, mud sticks.”

Heard also has had her character questioned and has been accused of fabricating evidence. She was accused by a #MeToo activist, Katherine Kendall, of appropriating a violent rape that happened to Kendall for her own ends.

The most likely winners are Wass and Sherborne, tough lawyers who both made strong cases for their clients. Sherborne also has a starring role in another big celebrity trial — he’s representing the Duchess of Sussex in her lawsuit against the Mail on Sunday newspaper over publication of a private letter she sent to her father Thomas Markle.

WILL THE VERDICT BE THE END OF THE STORY?

Not likely. Depp is suing Heard for $50 million in Virginia over a Washington Post story about domestic violence. The trial is due to be held next year.

Stephens said that if Depp “loses in London, he’s almost certain to lose that American case. So this is in some ways a dress rehearsal for the second case.”

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