By Michael Holden and Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) - Hollywood star Johnny Depp on Monday lost his libel battle with a British tabloid that labelled him a "wife beater", after a London High Court judge ruled he had repeatedly assaulted his former partner and put her in fear for her life.
In a ruling that could severely damage Depp's reputation and career, Judge Andrew Nicol said he accepted claims from the actor's ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, that he had violently assaulted her during their tempestuous five-year relationship.
"I have found that the great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard," said Nicol. "The claimant has not succeeded in his action for libel."
Depp's lawyers described the ruling as "perverse as it is bewildering", and said it would be ridiculous for him not to appeal.
Depp, 57, star of films including "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Edward Scissorhands", had sued News Group Newspapers, publishers of the Sun, and one of its journalists, Dan Wootton, over a 2018 article which stated he had been violent towards Heard, 34.
The newspaper also questioned his casting in the "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them" movie franchise.
Nicol ruled that the paper's allegations were "substantially true". "It follows that this claim is dismissed," he said.
Over the course of three weeks at London's High Court in July, the judge heard evidence from both Depp and Heard about their fiery marriage, alleged affairs, his hedonistic lifestyle and battle with drink and drugs, and their furious rows.
Each accused the other of violent outbursts.
Heard said Depp would turn into a jealous alter ego, "the monster", after bingeing on drugs and alcohol. He had often threatened to kill her, she said. Heard detailed 14 occasions of extreme violence when she said the actor choked, punched, slapped, head-butted, throttled and kicked her.
Nicol said he accepted 12 of these accounts were true, including assaulting her after her 30th birthday party and one another incident which left her with black eyes. He also supported her description of a three-day ordeal of "sustained and multiple assaults" while they were in Australia.
"It is a sign of the depth of his rage that he admitted scrawling graffiti in blood from his injured finger and then, when that was insufficient, dipping his badly injured finger in paint and continuing to write messages and other things," Nicol said.
"They must have been terrifying. I accept that Mr Depp put her in fear of her life."
The couple met while making "The Rum Diary" in 2011 and married four years later, but divorced in 2016.
Depp had told the court he was never violent towards his ex-wife, saying her claims were a hoax and that he had lost the tip of a finger after she threw a vodka bottle at him during the particularly ferocious row in Australia.
But Nicol rejected his version of how he lost the finger, as well as Depp's characterisation of Heard as a gold-digger and his allegation that her claims were a hoax.
The judge also said it was "unlikely" that either Heard or one of her friends had defecated in their bed as Depp had claimed.
Depp's lawyers said it was "troubling" that the judge had relied on Heard's testimony while rejecting the evidence of police officers, her former assistant and other witnesses which they said had undermined her evidence.
"The judgment is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr Depp not to appeal this decision," law firm Schillings said.
"In the meantime, we hope that in contrast to this case, the ongoing libel proceedings in America are equitable, with both parties providing full disclosure rather than one side strategically cherry picking what evidence can and cannot be relied upon.
Depp has also filed a $50 million defamation lawsuit against Heard in a Virginia court over an opinion piece she wrote in The Washington Post.
"For those of us present for the London High Court trial, this decision and judgment are not a surprise," Elaine Charlson Bredehoft, Heard's U.S. lawyer said in a statement.
"Very soon, we will be presenting even more voluminous evidence in the U.S. We are committed to obtaining Justice for Amber Heard in the U.S. Court and defending Ms. Heard's Right to Free Speech."
The Sun said the ruling was a "stunning victory" for press freedom.
"Domestic abuse victims must never be silenced and we thank the judge for his careful consideration and thank Amber Heard for her courage in giving evidence to the court," the paper said in a statement.
(Reporting by Michael Holden and Alistair Smout; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Collett-White)