Legal News Roundup: May 2022
Trigger Warning: The following article makes mention of physical, verbal and sexual violence. Reader caution is therefore advised.
May was another month full of fascinating legal news as law featured in multiple headline-dominating stories. This month saw the beginning of the war crimes trials associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. May also marked the climax and conclusion of the Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial. The long-awaited Sue Gray Report, damning the actions of 10 Downing Street during the height of the pandemic, was also released in full this month. Finally, the month concluded with the announcement that the United States Department of Justice would begin an investigation into the questionable timeline of the devastating Uvalde shooting. Check out more detailed summaries of each of the stories below"
Russian War Crimes Trials Begin
May saw the beginning of the war crimes trials arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. First, Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old tank commander, was accused of shooting and killing an unarmed Ukraine civilian, Oleksandr Shelipov. Shishimarin pled guilty to the murder and has since been sentenced to life in prison.
Later in the month, two other Russian soldiers, Aleksandr Bobikin and Aleksdanr Ivanov, were also sentenced. Both were accused of shelling a school building in the town of Derhachi. Like Shishimarin, despite claiming to be merely following orders, both pled guilty. They were sentenced to 11 and a half years in prison.
The sentencing news was announced one day before a Ukrainian report, estimating 15,000 war crimes have been committed by Russian forces since the invasion began, was released. The report lists several actions recognised by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as war crimes, including the forcible transfer of civilians, torture and the targeting and destruction of civilian-purpose buildings. Military employees, politicians and propaganda agents, among others, were accused of committing the crimes.
In the coming months, other war crimes trials and verdicts should be anticipated. According to the same Ukrainian report, 80 prosecutions have already begun and many more are under investigation. These investigations are largely being carried out by Ukrainian authorities; however, they are being assisted by legal experts in Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, Poland and Lithuania. The International Criminal Court has also sent a team of investigators. The Russian government continues to deny that it was involved in war crimes.
Amber Heard and Johnny Depp Trial Concludes
Although beginning in April 2022, the Depp v Heard defamation trial captured headlines and social media throughout the month of May. Johnny Depp sued former wife Amber Heard for defamation because she claimed to be a victim of domestic violence in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post. While Depp was not named in the op-ed, he claimed Heard’s statement cost him acting opportunities. Heard responded with claims that Depp not only committed sexual violence against her but was also verbally and physically abusive. In return, Depp denied the claim, maintaining that Heard abused him. After the trial began, Heard countersued for defamation over comments Depp’s attorney made during the trial.
This is not the first time Heard and Depp have faced off in court over a defamation suit. In 2018, Depp sued Heard over comments appearing in The Sun while Heard testified as to Depp’s supposedly abusive character in response. However, the 2022 trial seems to have captured greater viewer interest. Court TV, a legal channel that broadcasts trials to the public, has reported a viewership four times greater than its average. The trial has also taken over social media channels Twitter and TikTok. While the gripping testimony may be one source of fascination with the case, reporters have also cited the trial’s celebrity nature as a reason for increased interest. Not only are Heard and Depp well-known actors, but other celebrities, including Ellen Barkin and Kate Moss have appeared as witnesses. Elon Musk, who had a prior relationship with Heard, has also repeatedly been asked about the case.
On 1 June the trial concluded with the jury finding both Heard and Depp liable for defamation. As both were guilty, they were each given damages. Depp was awarded US$ 10 million in compensatory damages and US$ 5 million in punitive damages. However, because of damage caps in the state of Virginia, the judge awarded Depp a little over US$ 10 million. Heard was awarded US$ 2 million in compensatory damages.
"Partygate" Report Released
May also saw the release of the complete Sue Gray report. The report, conducted by Gray, a senior civil servant, examined the reason for and nature of the social gatherings which occurred at 10 Downing Street during the Covid-19 lockdowns. 16 different events from May 2020 and April 2021 were examined including: the now-infamous garden party, a "pizza and prosecco" event, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s birthday and a party on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. The report provides photos and WhatsApp messages as evidence.
Initially, the report was to be released in January, but Gray held off in anticipation of the Metropolitan Police’s investigation of the same events. As did the police, Gray determined that the events did not comply with Covid guidelines because social distancing was ignored. As a result of the police investigation, 83 individuals have received fines for their participation. These individuals include Johnson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak.
While Johnson has since apologised for the parties in question, he has also appeared to justify them, citing his staff’s need to release the strain and stress during the Covid pandemic. However, this justification has not been received well by Johnson’s fellow politicians nor the British public. A recent poll of the British people reveals that 58 percent think the Prime Minister should resign while politicians on both sides have made similar calls. However, Johnson has given no indication that he plans to resign.
DOJ to investigate Uvalde Shooting
On 29 May, the US Department of Justice announced that it will investigate the 24 May shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. The shooting killed 19 children and 2 teachers. The DOJ says it hopes to gain insight on lessons learned and determine future best practices.
Since the shooting, the timeline of the police’s response has come under attack. Critics claim that officers took too long to properly respond to the shooting despite receiving calls from inside the school. Further, since the shooting, the narrative provided by police and government officials has changed. Officers have recently corrected the report that a school official engaged with the gunman before he entered the school. Additionally, despite originally claiming that the shooter was pinned into a classroom and facing open fire, state officials now say that the shooter was only barricaded in a classroom.
The investigation announcement comes amid severe international criticism of weak gun legislation in the US - an issue President Joe Biden describes as a uniquely American phenomenon. Leading the discussion, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, noted that her country immediately responded to its 2019 mass shooting. New Zealand not only engaged in a substantial buy-back program, which removed thousands of weapons from civilian hands but also banned the majority of semi-automatic weapons. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Pope Francis, the European Union Ambassador to the US Stavros Lambrinidis, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, President of France Emmanuel Macron and Mexican President Andres Obrador have all also condemned American gun laws.
In response to both the international community and the tragedy in Uvalde (and more recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma), both chambers of US Congress have begun talks to amend gun legislation. What legislation, if any, will be proposed is unclear at this time.