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Unveiling the Truth: How the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard Trial Underscores the Importance of the 2020 Title IX Regulations

Litigation By Binnall Law Group - 2022/06/09 at 10:23am

By: Lindsay R. McKasson and Jared J. Roberts

The riveting trial of Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard has come to an end with the Pirates of the Caribbean star victorious to a tune of $15 million.

As most anyone with a social media account likely knows, Johnny Depp sued Amber Heard for defamation in Virginia’s Fairfax County Circuit Court. At issue was a 2018 op-ed Ms. Heard published in The Washington Post (titled “Amber Heard: I spoke up against sexual violence and felt our culture’s wrath. That has to change.”). Mr. Depp claimed the article cost him multiple job opportunities and millions of dollars. Ms. Heard counter sued.

After years of shame in the court of public opinion, Mr. Depp was vindicated when he finally had his day in court. The jury awarded him $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages (the punitive damages were reduced to $350,000 under Virginia law). Ms. Heard succeeded in one countersuit claim, winning an award of $2 million. She received no punitive damages.

Mr. Depp issued a statement after the verdict, which read in part: “Six years ago, my life…[was] forever changed…False, very serious and criminal allegations were levied at me via the media, which triggered an endless barrage of hateful content, although no charges were ever brought against me…[I]t had a seismic impact on my life and my career. And six years later, the jury gave me my life back. I am truly humbled.”

The multi-million-dollar verdict will hopefully remind everyone, including the Biden Administration, of the importance of “innocent until proven guilty” and bring an end to the era of blindly believing accusers without evidence.

As you may or may not know, in March 2022, President Biden issued an executive order to review and implement new Title IX regulations (notably, the Administration continues to delay its announcement of the new rules). It is widely speculated that the Biden Administration will remove current due process protections, including the presumption of innocence and cross-examination.

Currently, the 2020 Title IX Regulations require “a presumption that the respondent [accused] is not responsible for the alleged conduct until a determination regarding responsibility is made at the conclusion of the grievance process” (34 CFR § 106.45).

The 2020 Title IX Regulations also require cross-examination, allowing “each party’s advisor to ask the other party and any witnesses all relevant questions and follow-up questions, including those challenging credibility.” Cross-examination is the best mechanism to expose weaknesses of the other side’s story, challenge credibility, and expose the truth.

These due process protections were forefront in the Depp trial. Crucially, Mr. Depp’s legal team’s effective cross-examination of Ms. Heard eviscerated her credibility. The trial also underscores the importance of giving credence to both sides of the story because most things are not as they appear at first blush.

The 2020 Title IX Regulations do just that, creating an even playing field at the start of the Title IX process, instead of tipping the balance in favor of one party over the other. “Believe all women” puts wrongfully accused people at risk. Instead, listen to everyone involved, perform a detailed investigation, and hold a hearing with cross-examination so that truth will prevail.

Mr. Depp’s day in court finally allowed him to share his truth. As Mr. Depp so poignantly stated, “I hope that my quest to have the truth be told will have helped others, men or women, who have found themselves in my situation, and that those supporting them never give up. I also hope that the position will now return to innocent until proven guilty, both within the courts and in the media.”

Hopefully, the Biden Administration, will remember that due process is a bedrock principle of this nation, and it needs to remain so on campuses.