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THE JOHNNY DEPP EFFECT: CONSIDER ALL SIDES OF THE STORY
When a Virginia jury ruled the actor was defamed by Amber Heard, it begged examination of other legal narratives that previously were treated as one-sided — including a personal case 12 years ago
The first kick didn’t hurt. But the second one did, squarely in the shin. I had no choice but to ignore the pain and focus on my work assignment, which happened to be on a TV set in my Santa Monica hotel room. LeBron James was about to announce where he would play next — you remember “The Decision,” in all its clumsy entitlement — and my editors at a sports website would need my column in 90 minutes or so.
Besides, how would it serve me to tell anyone that my dating partner actually was kicking me because, oh, she preferred to watch something else that evening? I was the male in the equation, after all, a loser in the gathering power dynamic of the 2010s, soon to be followed by the #MeToo movement. If I called down to the front desk, would the local police be contacted — and why would they believe me, especially when I was known for robust and controversial opinions on a daily ESPN debate program? My network bosses, championing diversity at the time, no doubt would conveniently scapegoat a high-profile white man in his early 50s if given the opportunity. My website bosses didn’t need any negative publicity, either. Friends, family? It only could go bad if I spoke up.
I felt trapped, helpless, concerned about my career. As it was, I was a frequent target on trashy sports media sites. Couldn’t a situation like this be used against me on those very sites? I felt further caged upon finding empty booze bottles, from the mini-bar in my room, under the driver’s seat of her SUV. I should have fled to Wyoming, Bora Bora, Pluto. Instead, I wanted to help, knowing she’d lost her well-paying job, recognizing she had personal issues as we all do.
It was the biggest mistake of my life. Her raw moments continued, and this relationship was doomed. I lost patience one night, voiced my annoyance, and next thing you knew, after a two-way argument with shoves from both sides on grass in a park, a policeman was slamming me into a wall and yelling, “You’re under arrest, abuser!” Cuffed and squeezed, I heard her tell an officer, “He’s in the media.” Minutes later, two officers driving me to a nearby station said I’d be released soon because “she had no bruises” and required no medical care.
Didn’t matter. In a time frame of 48 hours, I became a major news story. New at this, in my recently adopted city, I was encouraged to hire the best lawyers in Los Angeles because I was in deep trouble. This is where an avalanche of deceit began, surely encouraged by attorneys who make hay ginning up allegations and fudging evidence to build cases. Was I being railroaded as a public figure, one who played a loudmouth on TV?
I had no chance. ESPN blasted my photo so large on a “SportsCenter” backdrop when reporting the story that I knew help wasn’t forthcoming from Bristol. On our show, “Around The Horn,’’ fellow panelists piled on me in a commentary that influenced public opinion, if not the legal case itself, though no charges had been filed. Never mind that Howard Bryant, a writer and commentator at the network, was arrested in that period for allegedly assaulting his estranged wife in front of their 6-year-old son. He was charged with domestic assault and battery, assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. Bryant told authorities in Massachusetts that ESPN was supporting him in the matter, and he was correct. When his wife defended him, and all charges were conditionally dropped, his career resumed and thrived at multiple outlets.
Mine stalled. Though the L.A. district attorney’s office had no interest in the case — and though the only eventual charge against me was a low-level misdemeanor akin to “unwanted touching on a shoulder,” according to my attorney — my difficult decision to accept a no-contest plea was met by immediate firings from both jobs. I pleaded not as an acknowledgement of guilt but to protect my daughters, who had to deal with frenzied Internet fallout about me on their college campus. Yet my bosses at both media shops refused to talk to me or my attorney. I was their Exhibit A in what happens to a man in a domestic abuse case. I also was without work for the first time since high school.
I was Johnny Depp, accused and assumed guilty. Creeps on social media were urging me to kill myself. TMZ types were following me around town, peppering me with questions outside an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Little did I realize my plea would open the door to more subterfuge, as enabled by operatives in media trying to bury me with bogus coverage. One day, she accused me of stalking when, in fact, I was the one being followed in the months ahead — to the point my lawyer contacted the L.A. city attorney, whose office suggested an arrangement that sounded like an NBA draft. I picked five establishments she had to avoid, and vice versa. Would David Stern make the announcements? It worked for about six months, before I was invited by a friend to a gathering at a bar he owned. A harmless party, right, as life moved on? Until I looked up later in the night and saw her standing only a few feet away, staring holes through me. I’ve never been so shaken. I couldn’t escape quickly enough, with the help of the establishment owner, who ushered me through a crowd out the front door. When I turned right onto a main street, she stood directly in front of me, aiming her phone at me and shouting before following me up an adjoining avenue.
Again, I was trapped. This time, it felt like entrapment.
I made a horrendous mistake: I reached for her phone. She responded by yelling, “My hair! My hair!” Her hair? She wanted someone to hear her cries, her bluff, and if she claimed I’d truly grabbed her hair, it wouldn’t have held up in court. She wore a wig and extensions because of a medical condition. The wig would have ended up on the pavement, probably. As I ran away — literally, ran — another police car pulled up, and I was taken to another station in South Central L.A., where I spent the worst night of my life.
It was the last I saw her. Some time later, after I released an e-book allowing me to tell my side for the first time, I was served with papers for the inevitable money grab: a civil suit for major damages. At that point, I compiled an exhaustively detailed chronology of the entire seven-month relationship, complete with discovery and witnesses I hadn’t been allowed to present earlier. My lawyer brought the chronology to her lawyer.
Quickly, she dropped the suit.
I’d lived a good, proud life before then. I’ve lived a good, proud life since then. I’m clouded by the episode anyway, at least in a petty media industry that refuses to report how we prevailed in the civil case — isn’t that a wee bit significant? — or that the entire case was expunged by the court a long time ago. In the end, a decision went favorably for us. I owed not a cent.
In a sense, I was Depp, a victor but long after reputational damage was exacted. Twelve years later, away from the media lunacy that enabled the public airing, I’ve never been happier or healthier and never have written with more clarity and vigor. Yet I couldn’t help but cringe when Depp’s accuser, Amber Heard, testified that she swung at Depp in defense of her sister — and hit him “square in the face.” Heard said she’d feared her sister would be pushed down a set of stairs because, in her mind, Depp once had pushed his ex-girlfriend, supermodel Kate Moss, down stairs.
“I don't hesitate, I don't wait — I just, in my head, instantly think of Kate Moss and stairs,” Heard said in court.
Problem was, as Moss would testify via live video, Heard was terribly mistaken. “He never pushed me, kicked me or threw me down any stairs," Moss told the court. “We were leaving the room and Johnny left the room before I did and there had been a rainstorm, and as I left the room, I slid down the stairs and I hurt my back. He came running back to help me and carried me to my room and got me medical attention.”
Said Depp: “Ms. Heard took the story and turned it into a very ugly incident, all in her mind.”
Armed with all the persuasive cultural power at the time, Heard wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece in 2018, identifying herself as a “public figure representing domestic abuse.” Today, after Depp’s successful defamation suit, she is out more than $10 million in damages after a jury in Virginia ruled overwhelmingly in her ex-husband’s favor.
The world-famous actor thanked the jury for giving “me my life back,” adding, “Six years ago, my life, the life of my children, the lives of those closest to me, and also, the lives of the people, who for many, many years have supported and believed in me, were forever changed. All in the blink of an eye.” He blamed media for running with “false, very serious and criminal allegations” that led to an “endless barrage of hateful content.” Then he strummed his guitar, while hanging out in England with his music friends. As for Heard, she said she’s “heartbroken” and plans to appeal.
Is this a watershed moment in the #MeToo power dynamic? Will politics and assumptions finally give way to justice when the truth is applicable? Will all sides of the story be considered now?
My kicked shin would like to think so.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.