By now you have seen the news that Johnny Depp won….. sort of. He prevailed on all of his counts, and Amber Heard was successful on one of hers. He gets $15 million, and she gets $2 million. Quantitatively, he wins, and whether he can collect the money from her remains to be seen. This was not a divorce, child custody or even a domestic violence case, but like many family law cases, it had elements and common facts related to family law.
This long national nightmare was actually a defamation trial held well after the divorce was settled. Pro tip: you may think the bad-mouthing stops when the judge issues the divorce decree, however, Johnny Depp now has 13 million reasons to demonstrate that it is not the truth. Now that it’s over, it is worth considering whether this non-family law case, the issues it showcased, and the decision the jury made might have any effect on the garden variety family law case involving allegations of domestic violence. I don’t know the answer, but it probably should.
First, we were both lucky and unlucky enough for this case to be televised. Throughout the trial, we were shown many videos of their interactions - including a clip of Johnny Depp stumbling around drunk in the apartment and saying nutty things. Text messages from him about what he wanted to do to Amber Heard were also painfully read aloud. At that point, it looked like Johnny made a big mistake and I’m sure many will never forget who he showed us he really was. This happens frequently in family courts. Allegations are made against the husband and wife by the other party, then a video or texts are produced to make that party look bad in the judge’s eyes (no juries in family law, you know). The next thing you know someone‘s rights to see their children are reduced or they are kicked out of their house. This happens all the time and you can’t really blame judges because their first job is to protect children and others from potential harm and abuse.
In this case, though, it was the allegations themselves that were really on trial and their effect on the lives, careers and reputations of the people they were leveled against. This is almost never considered in the family law courtroom where the worst things are said about the other person, and, whether proven or not, can have a devastating impact on the outcome and the individual.
We often see very unscrupulous parents who classically “put the children in the middle” and think nothing of alleging sexual abuse claims against the other parent to simply gain the upper hand in their custody case. We also see requests for restraining orders alleging fear of the other person only after we learn that the victim stays with their alleged abuser for days or weeks incident free and only then goes to court to have the other person evicted and made to stay away.
Now, it must be stated here that domestic violence is serious business and credible allegations should never be taken lightly no matter how remote they are from the incident of abuse. Indeed, the Pennsylvania Protection from Abuse Statute and the many state restraining order statutes do a great job in immediately addressing potential domestic abuse against adults and children and include powerful tools and remedies to prevent possible harm from happening or continuing to happen. But, just as powerful as these statutes can be as a shield for victims of domestic violence, they can be used as sharp swords by those who might abuse the remedies to get an upper hand in family law. In cases where one of the parties is a sociopath, a narcissist, or both this is often part of the strategy. I wonder if any of the jurors in Depp v. Heard saw any of this in either of the parties?
In the child custody context, I once knew a practitioner who advised his clients to file for a restraining order for the kids instead of seeking emergency child custody, especially on a Friday when the restraining order would be the “better remedy” since there is always a chance that a judge might not entertain child custody questions right before the weekend. This situation could easily be an abuse of the system for protecting against domestic violence and is probably all too common.
Back to Captain Jack and his former princess bride. This trial, regardless of the outcome or what you personally think about it, highlighted the damage that arbitrarily labeling someone an abuser might have. This is a different context than we see in divorce, child custody, and domestic violence cases, of course, where people are seeking different remedies for different reasons, but the same kind of abuse is often alleged. Viewing it on TV this time may have been a good exercise. It allowed us to see how nasty these cases can get and also appreciate the implications of using and possibly abusing themes of domestic violence, if, in-fact, that’s what the jury determined happened here. Make no mistake, there was likely obvious domestic violence demonstrated in the Depp v. Heard case. Hopefully, lessons on the seriousness of domestic violence allegations can be gained from us all having to live through this trial these past weeks.