Johnny Depp's lawyers asked a jury Friday (Saturday NZT) "to give Mr Depp his life back" by finding that his ex-wife, Amber Heard, committed libel.
Heard "ruined his life by falsely telling the world she was a survivor of domestic abuse at the hands of Mr Depp," lawyer Camille Vasquez told the jury in closing arguments.
Depp is hoping the six-week trial will help restore his reputation, though it has turned into a spectacle of a vicious marriage, with broadcast cameras in the courtroom capturing every twist to an increasingly rapt audience as fans weighed in on social media and lined up overnight for coveted courtroom seats.
"This case for Mr Depp has never been about money," said Depp lawyer Benjamin Chew. "It is about Mr Depp's reputation and freeing him from the prison in which he has lived for the last six years."
Heard's lawyer, J Benjamin Rottenborn, said the lawsuit is not about Depp's reputation but is part of an ongoing smear campaign Depp launched after Heard filed for divorce.
"In Mr Depp's world, you don't leave Mr Depp," he said. "If you do, he will start a campaign of global humiliation against you."
Depp is suing Heard for US$50 million in Virginia's Fairfax County Circuit Court over a December 2018 op-ed she wrote in The Washington Post describing herself as "a public figure representing domestic abuse". His lawyers say he was defamed by the article even though it never mentioned his name.
Heard filed a US$100 million counterclaim against Depp after his lawyer called her allegations a hoax. Though the counterclaim has received less attention at the trial, Heard lawyer Elaine Bredehoft said it provides an avenue for the jury to compensate Heard for the abuse Depp has inflicted on her by orchestrating a smear campaign against her.
"We're asking you to finally hold this man responsible," she told the jury. "He has never accepted responsibility for anything in his life."
Depp says he never struck Heard and that she concocted the abuse allegations to gain an advantage in divorce proceedings. He has said he was often physically attacked by Heard.
"There is an abuser in this courtroom, but it is not Mr. Depp," Vasquez said.
Heard testified about more than a dozen episodes of physical and sexual assault that she said Depp inflicted on her.
Vasquez, in her closing, noted that Heard had to revise her testimony about the first time she said she was struck. Heard said Depp hit her after she inadvertently laughed at one of his tattoos. Heard initially said it happened in 2013 — after a fairy-tale year of courtship and romance — but later corrected herself to say it happened in 2012, very early in their relationship.
"Now in this courtroom she has suddenly erased an entire year of magic," Vasquez said.
Jurors have seen multiple photos of Heard with marks and bruises on her face, but some photos show only mild redness, and others show more severe bruising.
Vasquez accused Heard of doctoring the photos and said evidence that Heard has embellished some of her injuries is proof that all her claims of abuse are unfounded.
"You either believe all of it, or none of it," she said. "Either she is a victim of ugly, horrible abuse, or she is a woman who is willing to say absolutely anything."
In Heard's closing, Rottenborn said the nitpicking over Heard's evidence of abuse ignores the fact there's overwhelming evidence on her behalf and sends a dangerous message to domestic-violence victims.
"If you didn't take pictures, it didn't happen," Rottenborn said. "If you did take pictures, they're fake. If you didn't tell your friends, they're lying. If you did tell your friends, they're part of the hoax."
And he rejected Vasquez's suggestion that if the jury thinks Heard might be embellishing on a single act of abuse that they have to disregard everything she says. He said Depp's libel claim must fail if Heard suffered even a single incident of abuse.
"They're trying to trick you into thinking Amber has to be perfect to win," Rottenborn said.
When the jury deliberates, it will have to focus not only on whether there was abuse but also whether Heard's op-ed piece can be considered legally defamatory. The article itself focuses mostly on policy questions of domestic violence, but Depp's lawyer point to two passages in the article, as well as an online headline that they say defamed Depp.
In the first passage, Heard writes that "two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture's wrath". Depp's lawyers call it a clear reference to Depp, given that Heard publicly accused Depp of domestic violence in 2016 — two years before she wrote the article.
In the second passage, she states "I had the rare vantage point of seeing, in real time, how institutions protect men accused of abuse."
The online headline reads "Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence — and faced our culture's wrath."
"She didn't mention his name. She didn't have to," Chew said. "Everyone knew exactly who and what Ms Heard was talking about."
Heard's lawyers Heard can't be held liable for the headline because she didn't write it, and that the two passages in the article are not about the abuse allegations themselves but how Heard's life changed after she made them.
Rottenborn told jurors that even if they tend to believe Depp's claim that he never abused Heard, he still can't win his case because Heard has a First Amendment right to weigh in on matters of public debate.