As the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial concluded earlier this month, we watched with vicarious pleasure the dramatic twists and turns unfolding in real time, the careers of celebrities and their attorneys being made and unmade in the courtroom. While it is nobody’s case that Heard’s private actions or public testimony were beyond critique, the extreme position taken by Depp’s fan clubs and supported by armies of online bots, that Depp could do absolutely no wrong, was clearly problematic and points to some uneasy fault lines in our societies. Here I look at some interesting legal dynamics of the case and its wider implications.
This case and its verdict—with both parties being found liable for defamation, but Depp being awarded a much larger sum of fifteen million dollars in damages compared to Heard’s two million, with the latter indicating she will appeal—have been publicly presented as a resounding victory for Depp and confirmation of his “objective” truth. In the process, the complex role of power in the legal process has largely been overlooked. Legal due process is a cornerstone of democracy; yet, as in the case of powerful nations calling the shots in the arena of international relations, power and clout play a critical role in the courtroom too. Particularly so in a defamation lawsuit, which in the United States is a civil suit. This is unlike in India where defamation can, pending legal reform, also be a criminal lawsuit, a relic of a colonial past that was historically used to silence critics of oppressive colonial regimes and has unfortunately been invoked in a postcolonial context to intimidate women coming forward with accounts of rape and sexual harassment in the workplace.