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Saturday, May 27, 2023

What important lessons Amber heard vs Johnny Depp trial gives to us?

Depp sued Heard, his ex-wife, for defamation over a 2018 op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post in which she described herself as a "public figure representing domestic abuse." Though Depp was not named in the article, he claims it cost him lucrative acting roles. Heard countersued her ex-husband for defamation over statements Depp's attorney made about her abuse claims.

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The Johnny Depp and Amber Heard verdict is the talk of the town. For those, who have been living under a rock, Johnny Depp filed a civil suit against his ex-wife Amber Heard for three counts of defamation. The first instance was when she referred to herself as “representing domestic abuse”, secondly, by stating that she witnessed “how institutions protect men accused of abuse,” and thirdly, by captioning a link, “I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath.” In return, Amber Heard also filed a counterclaim against Johnny Depp for similar charges.

Proceedings were conducted before cameras and it would not be wrong to say that they were watched like a sports game. There were long queues of people trying to catch the courtroom drama. However, due to limited seating capacity, a color-coded wristband system was used every morning at 7:00 am. Cheers and boos were also raised on the arrival of their favorite legal teams.

Read more: Johnny Depp wins defamation case against ex-wife Heard

Understanding the matter better

After an arduous, six-week-long trial, Johnny Depp obtained a favorable judgment whereby he is awarded fifteen million dollars in damages – ten million in compensatory damages and five million in punitive damages. Amber Heard also established that Johnny Depp’s former attorney made defamatory remarks against her and her friends. She is awarded two million dollars in damages. Not even a single penny of which is punitive in nature.

It must be understood that compensatory damages are awarded to counterbalance the injured party for the loss caused to them. On the contrary, punitive damages are awarded to punish the accused of his wanton, willful and deliberate wrongdoing.

Read more: Johnny Depp to hear if he can appeal UK ‘wife-beater’ ruling

A quick fact check transpires that Amber Heard with the help of her protective order attorneys filed for a restraining order against Johnny Depp in 2016. At that time, her pictures with apparent bruises were circulating in the media. So, a prudent mind wonders how does her statement about herself being ‘a public figure representing domestic abuse’ is factually incorrect? Depp’s lawyers argued that injuries were fake and made up.

The jury, consisting of five men and two women, chose to believe them

It is relevant to mention here that Johnny Depp failed to defend the allegation of being a ‘wife-beater’ in the UK. It is a rare occurrence that the same issue, contested across borders, results in conflicting outcomes. Had this happened in Pakistan, our judiciary would have found itself at ground zero of contemptuous remarks. Everybody would have jumped on the bandwagon to scandalize the authority of our courts.

Had the defamation happened in Pakistan, Amber Heard may also have been prosecuted by FIA under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. Her residence may have been raided by the FIA officials or just like the case of an influencer, she may have been required to visit FIA office of a city where neither she nor Depp resided. If this is not a textbook definition of Ouroboros, then we do not know what is!

Read more: Johnny Depp ‘keen to star’ in J M Coetzee adaptation

To compare UK and USA case’ outcomes one must understand a few basic things. Firstly, the UK case was before a judge, only. Whereas, in the USA justice system a jury is used to reach a verdict. Particularly, in cases of sexual or domestic abuse, the most used strategy is to ‘deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender’. By doing so, the defense attempts to shift the spotlight from rebutting the allegation to shaking the credibility of the victim. Judges do normally see through such strategies and throw them out; a common man, i.e., a juror, normally does not.

One cannot deny that Amber Heard failed on the stand during her examination as well as cross-examination. All her dry-eyed crying did not do her any good particularly when we need a ‘perfect victim’ – the one who behaves a certain way, a damsel in distress and in our culture dresses up a certain way too. Because it is easier to blame the victim for her miseries and look the other way. One is reminded of what Dale Carnegie said, “when dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.

The power of social media

One should not rebuff the probability that this case was influenced by the raw power of social media. The countless memes, TikTok lip-synchs and hashtag trends have been thrust upon us. Although, the jury was cautioned to stay away from the public sentiments how is that humanly possible, especially when the trial took a ten-day recess.

Mr. Hassan Raja, a Media-Tech guru, has recently coined the term ‘opinion hacking’ and defined this as a phenomenon by which, ‘individual thinking and opinion is either confused and or compromised by the use of sudden information bursts on specific non suspecting but susceptible audience’. This situation begs our attention.

If anything, the verdict per se and the journey to reach it, has exposed potential misdemeanors of the digital world as well as lacunas of the USA legal system. And borderless nature of the tech world requires all stakeholders to either fix this bug at the earliest or buckle up to suffer at the hands of this digital demon.


The writer is a managing partner at an Islamabad-based law firm. He deals with legal corporate and commercial matters. He tweets at @H_Rohila. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.