Millions of people have watched Fairfax County (Va.) Circuit Court Chief Justice Penney Azcarate lead the libel trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard for the past six weeks.
Azcarate has maintained a guarded presence, accepting or rejecting evidence and occasionally admonishing witnesses to focus on the question. But the most momentous decision Azcarate made may have come weeks before the trial, when she allowed Court TV to operate two poolside cameras in the courtroom.
Viewership grew exponentially throughout the process as Law & Crime streamed the whole thing live. As Depp took the stand on Wednesday, live viewership on his channel peaked at 1,247,163 — more than double the number when he first testified in April. And in recent weeks, test clips have become inevitable on social media as mashups of Depp’s reaction shots have spread around the world.
Viewers have seen gruesome and often harrowing testimonies, particularly from Heard, who claimed Depp sexually assaulted her, assaulting her to the point that she feared being killed. In her last appearance at the booth on Thursday, Heard said it was “humbling” to relive those moments in front of cameras. Depp has denied Heard’s allegations, accusing them of fabricating an elaborate hoax that destroyed his career.
Heard’s team tried unsuccessfully to have the cameras removed from the hearing. At a Feb. 25 pretrial hearing, attorney Elaine Bredehoft noted that there had already been tremendous media attention and interest from “anxious anti-Amber networks.”
“What they do is everything that is unfavorable – take a look,” Bredehoft said. “They take a statement out of context and play it over and over and over and over.”
Depp’s attorney Ben Chew greeted the cameras. He said that Heard had already “destroyed” Depp in the media and was not allowed to hide in court.
“Mr. Depp believes in transparency,” Chew said.
In weighing the issue, Azcarate noted that she received many media inquiries and she was responsible for keeping the proceedings open to observers. If cameras weren’t allowed, she feared that reporters would come to the courthouse and potentially create a dangerous situation there.
“I see no good reason not to do it,” Azcarate said.
Enabling hammer-to-hammer reporting has given viewers the opportunity to see all the evidence, assess the credibility of the witnesses and form their own opinions without anything being filtered out by the news outlets. However, some observers fear that Azcarate’s decision will also have a deterrent effect on victims of domestic violence.
“Having this trial televised is the worst single decision I can think of in relation to intimate partner violence and sexual violence in recent history,” said Michele Dauber, a professor at Stanford Law School. “It has implications far beyond this case.”
Michelle Simpson Tuegel, an attorney who has represented sex crime victims in high-profile cases, said her clients often don’t even want their real names used in public court filings. Now she worries that they fear appearing on a livestream show.
“You see someone who’s not just being televised, but being taken apart in such a hateful way,” she said. “Live streaming is really just a way to magnify what survivors are going through. I am saddened and disgusted by how it will create a discourse to stop people from seeking justice and speaking out about what they have been through.”
Under Virginia law, the trial judge has discretion to allow cameras in the courtroom. However, the law lists some instances where cameras are prohibited, including testimony from “victims and families of victims of sex crimes.”
At the Feb. 25 hearing, Bredehoft argued that Heard was a victim of sexual assault and therefore cameras should not be allowed. Azcarate did not accept this reading of the law, noting that the rule does not apply to civil matters.
Cameras are a rarity in Virginia courts, according to several attorneys working there. A Fairfax County judge admitted them in the 2013 trial of Julio Blanco Garcia, who was convicted of murdering a 19-year-old woman. But that was an outlier, said Joe King, an Alexandria-based criminal defense attorney.
King represented Charles Severance, a man on trial in Fairfax County and convicted of three murders in 2015. The case was notorious locally, but the judge denied broadcast requests, allowing only still cameras instead. King said the judge also denied a media request to broadcast another murder trial he was conducting in Alexandria.
“It’s very special in Virginia,” he said. “We have always objected to this. So much happens in one big process. I don’t think lawyers need that distraction.”
In 2012, a Charlottesville judge refused to allow cameras at the trial and sentencing of George Huguely, a UVA lacrosse player convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. The judge ruled that the cameras would have harmful effects on witnesses and potential jurors in a future civil trial. Media organizations appealed the verdict, but the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the judge’s decision.
Attorney Rhonda Quagliana, who represented Huguely, said she was concerned cameras had made it difficult for him to get a fair trial. But she’s not against cameras in all cases.
“It’s a difficult balance,” she said, noting that she had watched the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer convicted of killing George Floyd. “This is an example of courtroom cameras serving an important purpose. People needed to see this process. They had to ensure orderly administration of justice.”
Lawrence McClafferty, a Fairfax attorney, was trying a case at the end of the Depp-Heard trial and saw Depp’s supporters waiting outside every day to catch a glimpse of the actor. He said the Commonwealth is unlikely to see a similar situation for the foreseeable future.
“Virginia is a conservative place,” he said. “We’re not used to cameras and they can be intrusive and distracting, which is another thing for a judge to deal with. I don’t think we’ll see much more of that.”
https://variety.com/2022/film/news/johnny-depp-amber-heard-cameras-courtroom-penney-azcarate-1235280060/ Judge in Depp-Heard case criticized for allowing TV cameras