Johnny Depp: how was the decision reached?

The decision in the Johnny Depp libel trial extends to 585 paragraphs of text. It is not a judgment which is easily skim-read or which lends itself to cherry picked quotes. It is divided into sections: §1 – 37 recounts the background and procedural history; §38 – 46 sets out the law. §48 – §74 set out what the Defendant (the Sun) and the Claimant (Depp) each said about fourteen separate incidents (broadly, the Sun asserted that there was domestic abuse and Depp denied it). At §75 – §84 the ‘ordinary meaning’ of the articles is considered. §85 – §94 sets out the evidence which was heard. §95 – §106 sets out the background to the relationship between Depp and Ms Heard.

At §107 – §205 the judge considered a number of factors raised by the Claimant as to why Ms Heard should be disbelieved out of hand – attacks on her credibility. These were rejected, and the judge went on at §206 – §573 to set out each and every incident, the evidence on it, whose evidence he preferred, and why.

At §574 – §583 the summary of conclusions on the evidence as a whole are set out, and finally §584 – §585 gives the conclusion itself.

It is important when looking at the judgment to bear in mind that this is not Depp v Heard, but Depp v Sun Newspaper. That is to say – Amber Heard did not herself publicise the allegations thereby triggering the libel claim. She was dragged into the spotlight not to defend her own reputation, but as a witness in defence of the Sun. Though publicly vindicated, this process has not been one of her own choice.

It is also important to note that this was not a criminal case, although it did involve allegations of criminal conduct. The standard of proof was the civil standard of ‘balance of probabilities’ – was it more likely than not.

So what of the counter-allegations? Depp also alleged that Heard had hit him and produced audio evidence of an alleged confession. Were these simply ignored by the judge? The answer to that is no: these were raised and considered as part of the factors raised as an attack on Ms Heard’s credibility. Audio recordings by both were taken into account but viewed as less rigorous evidence than that which is tested in cross examination. Ms Heard accepted that she had thrown pots at him and also on one occasion slapped him, but said this was in self defence. The judge also expressly considered this at §191-2 and said:

It may be asked why Ms Heard’s record or non-record for violence is of any relevance at all. It may be said that the libel which the Defendants are alleging is true is that Mr Depp was violent towards Ms Heard. Why then is it of any relevance to investigate whether Ms Heard was violent towards Mr Depp? Mr Sherborne offered two answers to this. First, it was integral to the defence of truth that the violence used by Mr Depp had been unlawful or unjustified. If, for instance, the only violence which Mr Depp had used had been in defence of himself it would hardly assist the Defendants in establishing the substantial truth of their allegation that he was a ‘wife-beater’.

Second, it was Mr Depp’s case that it was not he, but Ms Heard who had been the violent party. She denied this was so, but, if his account was correct, that would reflect adversely on her credibility.

The Claimant’s case was not simply that he had only used violence in defence of himself, but that the episodes of abuse hadn’t happened at all. Looking at the incidents individually, we see that

Incident 1: allegations that JD repeatedly slapped AH in the face and knocked her to the floor. The Claimant did not say that she had provoked it with violence; he denied that it had happened at all.
Incident 2: allegations that he hit her in the face, shook her and shoved her in to the wall. The Claimant did not say that she had provoked it with violence; he denied that it had happened at all.
Incident 3: allegations that he smashed glasses and ripped her dress. The Claimant did not say that she had provoked it with violence; he denied that it had happened at all.
Incident 4: allegations that he kicked her to the ground and threw a boot at her. The Claimant did not say that she had provoked it with violence; he denied that it had happened at all.

…. the rest continue in a similar vein. The incidents said to have been provoked by Ms Heard are Incidents 8, 9, 12 and 13 – four of the fourteen. For Depp to succeed, it was not enough for him to assert that she had once admitted a slap. He had to show that the Sun had not established that violence happened in any of the claims other than those said to be provoked by her, and also that her violence began the episodes rather than being in response to them.

In relation to each incident, the judge goes on to weigh up the evidence given by everyone involved and reach findings as to whether it did or did not happen. It is not the case that the judge did not accept that Ms Heard was ever aggressive – indeed she had accepted that in two of the incidents she had retaliated physically. In numerous of them there are what seemingly amounts to an admission by Depp in the form of an apology or text message following the event. It was the judge’s task to go through all of that evidence, hear what other witnesses had to say, and then reach a decision as to whether it was more likely than not that each incident had been proven by the Sun. Not every incident was found proved, but enough to prove the “substantial truth” of the article.

Much has been made on social media of a single line in the judgment: “It is not even of significant relevance to whether Ms Heard assaulted Mr Depp.” This line should be read more carefully than social media perhaps permits. It is a reference to whether the judge needed to make a finding as to who had left faeces on the bed. Depp alleged it was Ms Heard; Ms Heard denied it; it may have been one of the dogs. It is worth quoting the paragraph in full:

“Mr Depp’s belief that Ms Heard or one of her friends was responsible for leaving the faeces on the bed is relevant because (a) it led him to conclude that his marriage to Ms Heard could not continue and (b) it was the cause of part of the argument which subsequently took place on 21st May 2016. In my view, whether Ms Heard or one of her friends was in fact responsible is not important. It is remote from the central issue, namely whether Mr Depp assaulted Ms Heard. It is not even of significant relevance to whether Ms Heard assaulted Mr Depp. For what it is worth, I consider that it is unlikely that Ms Heard or one of her friends was responsible. Mr Depp had left that night for his property in Sweetzer. As long as he was away, it was Ms Heard who was likely to suffer from the faeces on the bed, not him. It was, therefore, a singularly ineffective means for Ms Heard or one of her friends to ‘get back’ at Mr Depp. Other evidence in the case showed that Boo (one of the two dogs) had an incomplete mastery of her bowels after she had accidentally consumed some marijuana.” [emphasis added]

In other words, “it” (meaning a finding as to who had left the faeces on the bed) was not of relevance to whether either Mr Depp had assaulted Ms Heard or as to whether Ms Heard had assaulted him. The meaning of this is absolutely not, as some have been led to believe, that the judge thinks that any assault by Ms Heard on Mr Depp is insignificant or irrelevant. It just means that if the judge had made firm findings as to who left the faeces on the bed, it would not have helped him to come to a decision on whether either of them had assaulted the other.

The judgment is lengthy and detailed. Each allegation seems to have been carefully assessed and reasons given for the findings made. The decision details a lifestyle which in a less wealthy litigant would at best be described as “chaotic.” In many regards it is almost repetitively similar to every account of domestic abuse heard in court: questioning by his barrister as to why she ‘went back to him’ alongside characterisation of the victim as a gold-digger and / or unstable, lies said to have been told by each party many years ago excavated and aired as proof positive that the other is an irredeemable fantasist. The unusual factor is that the public is able to see the reasoning given for each finding: most abuse trials are criminal trials in which the reasons for the jury’s findings are never disclosed.

Depp has indicated that he will seek leave to appeal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.