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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere: Johnny Depp and the ‘Happy Hour’ of self-indulgent litigation

“Isn’t ‘happy hour’ anytime?” Actor Johnny Depp’s question on the witness stand this week may prove the most telling line in the trial involving his ex-wife Amber Heard. Thus far, the trial appears to show a couple consumed by overindulgence and self-absorption. This case appears just another indulgence — more recreational than legal — for two celebrities who seem to enjoy having their hired legal hands take hatchets to each other.

For the record, this is supposed to be a defamation case. Depp must show that Heard’s 2018 Washington Post op-ed, alleging that she was a victim of abuse, defamed him to the tune of $50 million. He is arguing that audio and video recordings, along with the column, were all part of a carefully crafted public persona of Heard as a victim.

Heard’s column referred to “domestic abuse,” and Depp is, at a minimum, verbally abusive on the videos. States such as California stress that “abuse in domestic violence … can be verbal (spoken), emotional, or psychological.” With the evidence presented thus far, a jury is unlikely to rely on his often hazy recollection of the relationship.

Yet that may not be the verdict sought by either party. (Heard is countersuing Depp for defamation too.) Instead, they seem to be public figures who want a public verdict on their marriage.

Of course, this is not the first couple to seek catharsis through the courts. Moreover, the couple’s exhibitionism is matched only by the public’s voyeurism. The sad fact is that many people secretly enjoy seeing celebrities fall from great heights. 

Such people likely were not disappointed, as defense counsel showed Depp’s text messages longing to “drown her before we burn her!!!” and then “f— her burnt corpse.” In one video, a drunken Depp can be seen smashing glassware and cabinets as he poured himself a “mega-pint of red wine.”

If Depp came across as the menacing lead in “The Shining,” however, Heard came across as the manipulating lead in “Mommie Dearest.” Depp insisted he “assaulted cabinets” but never assaulted Heard; he explained that he had been the victim of abuse at the hands of his mother, who was often violent. Indeed, he offered a strikingly Freudian defense that he effectively married his mother and found himself in the very relationship that he struggled to escape as a child.

One audio recording had Heard admitting that she did on occasion assault Depp, including an unintelligible distinction between hitting, punching and slapping him. Those subtleties were lost, though, when Depp showed graphic pictures of how Heard allegedly severed the top of his finger after throwing a large vodka bottle at him.

Even the most embarrassing recordings may have created collateral damage for Heard. In the kitchen scene, for example, Heard clearly is hiding the camera as she seeks to induce a drunk Depp to make more shocking statements. When he storms out, she follows him and appears to smile in the midst of the horrific scene.

The most damaging evidence for Depp came at the end of the week’s testimony: Depp is heard on a recording threatening to cut himself and trying to get Heard to cut herself. It was perfectly timed by Heard’s counsel: After playing the breathtaking audiotape, the jury was dismissed by the court. It was like pulling a severed head from a duffel bag and asking Depp, “Is this yours?” With jurors breaking for a long weekend, the tape was left to echo in their minds, unrebutted, for three days. 

Yet even that disturbing tape may have blowback for Heard. It was recorded months after she filed for divorce, and, on it, Depp sounds entirely delusional. The jury could view Heard as, once again, too eager to record herself offering caring comments as Depp pursues another self-destructive diatribe. If jurors find such recordings to be staged, it plays into Depp’s arguments that he was a human wreck and Heard was picking through the ruins. He reinforced that narrative by testifying that Heard vehemently opposed any prenuptial or a later postnuptial agreement. 

Depp’s counsel clearly is using his conflicting, vulgar outbursts as weirdly authentic. There certainly is nothing rehearsed in his testimony; if anything, it is largely incoherent. On one hand, Depp texts of having relations with Heard’s burnt corpse while saying, on the other hand, that “I never want to hurt and always never wanted to hurt you.”

That brings us back to the purpose of this exercise in exhibitionism: It seems increasingly unlikely that either will prevail. As Depp is shown calling Heard an “idiot cow” and “worthless hooker,” Heard continues to display her recordings showing Depp as a coke-snorting, abuse-spewing maniac — and we are not even through Depp’s cross-examination yet. 

This strategy of mutually assured destruction might well persuade jurors to unanimously declare both parties to be equally abusive partners in a marriage so toxic that it could qualify as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site. 

But as experts question what the couple hopes to achieve by trashing each other, they ignore the possibility that that may be precisely what they want to achieve.

Asked at one point what he lost in his fight with Heard, Depp responded, “Nothing less than everything.” He’s right: Nothing in this trial will get him back a thing. However, it may cost Heard a great deal. This remains a trial that operates on only one principle, as stated by the great jurist Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean”: “Take what you can. Give nothing back.”

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

Tags abuse allegations celebrity culture defamation lawsuit domestic abuse Johnny Depp johnny depp trial toxic

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