The Incident Behind Those Sean Penn Domestic Abuse Allegations

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Sean Penn is suing Lee Daniels. (Getty Images)
Sean Penn is suing Lee Daniels. (Getty Images)

Surprising absolutely nobody, Sean Penn doesn't take kindly to being called abusive.

In the headlines earlier today was the Oscar-winner's defamation lawsuit against Empire co-creator Lee Daniels, whom he claims falsely accused him of abusing women. This new legal case brings up old tales of Penn's violent past.

The Hollywood bad boy has notoriously tangled with paparazzi (see Sean Penn's 7 Most Out-RAGE-ous Moments), that's not in question, but he continues to be dubbed an "abuser" — a topic that was dusted off again after he presented at this year's Academy Awards — and it traces back to an incident that took place with his first wife, Madonna, nearly 30 years ago. 

Sean Penn and Madonna in their '80s glory. (Getty Images)
Sean Penn and Madonna in their '80s glory. (Getty Images)

In early January 1989, the Associated Press reported that Madonna had "dropped assault charges" against her estranged husband stemming from an episode that occurred over New Year's Eve weekend a week before. The article stated that the singer reportedly told sheriff's deputies that she was beaten in her Malibu, California, home by her estranged husband. However, after meeting with a prosecutor, she withdrew her assault complaint.

The article referenced a tabloid report that described the incident as a "bizarre New Year's Eve attack," during which Madonna was "beaten, gagged, and left strapped to an armchair for nine hours before she escaped."

Penn and Madonna divorced soon after. Neither divulged what happened and they have since made amends. In fact, Penn was smiling in the audience of a Madonna concert in New York City last week. At a show a few days later, she talked about him to concertgoers.

"I did a show at Madison Square Garden the other night if you heard about it," she said, according to Us Weekly. "And my ex-husband was there! Could you imagine? He had been at my show 30 years earlier when I was at Madison Square Garden, and he was very upset with me for wearing a costume that was too revealing. That's not a lie!"

She ended: "Anyway, after the show he wrote me a letter and said he finally appreciates my art. And that is what I have to say about marriage, okay!? Thirty f--king years later."

The Associated Press report from 1989.
The Associated Press report from 1989.

Penn's marriage to Robin Wright, which lasted 14 years, was also turbulent, though there were no abuse charges filed against him. And his engagement to Charlize Theron ended earlier this year, but neither has spoken out about the causes for their uncoupling.

Penn's lawsuit is sparked by Daniels talking about Empire star Terrence Howard's admitted abuse during an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, in which he brought Penn into the conversation. "[Terrence] ain't done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of a sudden he's some f---in' demon," Daniels said. "That's a sign of the time, of race, of where we are right now in America."

According to Penn's lawsuit, which is seeking $10 million in damages, "Daniels falsely equates Penn with Howard, even though, while he has certainly had several brushes with the law, Penn (unlike Howard) has never been arrested, much less convicted, for domestic violence, as his ex-wives (including Madonna) would confirm and attest."

Further it stated, "As a result of Penn's status as a public figure, he has for years been the subject of scandalous, scurrilous, and baseless attacks. But Penn, like any citizen, has a right to defend himself and will no longer tolerate the reckless and malicious behavior of others, who seek to aggrandize themselves or their projects at his expense. Accordingly, and because of Daniels' defamatory statements, Penn brings this action for monetary relief, and to deter Daniels and others from their defamatory actions."

The thing about lawsuit is that it now opens the door for Penn's background and relationships to be scrutinized. Meaning the 1988 incident with Madonna will be now be investigated by the defense — with the singer herself likely being pulled into the mix. So the details from what occurred that night will become public record — for better or worse.