Millions of people have watched Penney Azcarate, the chief judge of the Fairfax County (Va.) Circuit Court, as she has presided over the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard for the last six weeks.
Azcarate has maintained a low-key presence, accepting or rejecting evidence and occasionally admonishing witnesses to focus on the question. But the most consequential decision Azcarate made may have come weeks before the trial, when she allowed Court TV to operate two pool cameras in the courtroom.
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Viewership increased exponentially as the trial went on, according to Law & Crime, which livestreamed the entire thing. When Depp took the stand on Wednesday, live viewership on its channel peaked at 1,247,163 — more than twice the peak during his initial testimony in April. And over the last several weeks, trial clips have become inescapable on social media, as mashups of Depp’s reaction shots have spread around the world.
Viewers have seen gruesome and often harrowing testimony, especially from Heard, who alleged that Depp had sexually assaulted her and attacked her to the point that she feared she would be killed. In her final appearance on the stand on Thursday, Heard said it was “humiliating” to relive those moments in front of cameras. Depp has denied Heard’s allegations and accused her of fabricating an elaborate hoax that destroyed his career.
Heard’s team tried unsuccessfully to exclude the cameras from the trial. At a pre-trial hearing on Feb. 25, attorney Elaine Bredehoft noted that there was already tremendous media attention as well as interest from “fearful anti-Amber networks.”
“What they’ll do is take anything that’s unfavorable — a look,” Bredehoft said. “They’ll take out of context a statement, and play it over and over and over and over again.”
Depp’s lawyer, Ben Chew, welcomed the cameras. He said that Heard had already “trashed” Depp in the media, and should not be allowed to hide at trial.
“Mr. Depp believes in transparency,” Chew said.
In weighing the issue, Azcarate noted that she was getting a lot of media requests, and she had a responsibility to keep the proceedings open to observers. If cameras were not allowed, she worried that reporters would come to the courthouse, potentially creating a hazardous condition there.
“I don’t see any good cause not to do it,” Azcarate said.
Allowing gavel-to-gavel coverage has given viewers the chance to see all the evidence, assess the credibility of the witnesses, and make up their own minds without having anything filtered out by news outlets. But some observers worry that Azcarate’s decision will also have a chilling effect on victims of domestic violence.
“Allowing this trial to be televised is the single worst decision I can think of in the context of intimate partner violence and sexual violence in recent history,” said Michele Dauber, a professor at Stanford Law School. “It has ramifications way beyond this case.”
Michelle Simpson Tuegel, an attorney who has represented victims of sex offenses in high-profile cases, said that her clients often don’t even want their real names used in public court filings. Now, she worries that they will have to fear appearing on a livestream broadcast.
“They see someone who is not only being televised, but is being taken apart in such a hateful way,” she said. “Livestreaming it is really just a way to magnify what survivors are going through. I’m saddened and disgusted by how it is going to create a discourse of scaring people from seeking justice and speaking out about what they’ve been through.”
Under Virginia law, the trial judge has almost total discretion over whether to allow cameras in the courtroom. The statute lists a few instances where cameras are forbidden, however, including the testimony of “victims and families of victims of sexual offenses.”
At the Feb. 25 hearing, Bredehoft argued that Heard is a victim of sexual assault, and that therefore cameras should be disallowed. Azcarate did not accept that reading of the statute, finding the rule does not apply to civil cases.
Cameras are a rarity in Virginia courts, according to several attorneys who practice there. A Fairfax County judge did allow 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, a criminal defense lawyer based in Alexandria.
King represented Charles Severance, a man who was tried in Fairfax County and convicted of three murders in 2015. The case was locally notorious, but the judge denied broadcast requests, instead allowing only still cameras. King said the judge also denied a media request to broadcast another murder trial that he handled in Alexandria.
“It’s very exceptional in Virginia,” he said. “We’ve always objected to that. There is so much going on in a big trial. I don’t think lawyers need that distraction.”
In 2012, a judge in Charlottesville refused to allow cameras at the trial and sentencing of George Huguely, a UVA lacrosse player who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend. The judge held that the cameras would have a harmful effect on witnesses and potential jurors in a future civil case. Media organizations appealed the ruling, but the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the judge’s decision.
Attorney Rhonda Quagliana, who represented Huguely, said she was worried that cameras would have made it harder for him to get a fair trial. But she is not opposed to cameras in all cases.
“It’s a tough balance,” she said, noting that she had watched the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd. “That’s an example of cameras in the courtroom fulfilling a vital purpose. People needed to see that trial. They needed to see the orderly administration of justice.”
Lawrence McClafferty, an attorney based in Fairfax, has been trying a case down the hall from the Depp-Heard trial, and has seen Depp’s supporters waiting outside every day for a glimpse of the actor. He said the commonwealth is not likely to see a similar situation anytime soon.
“Virginia is a conservative place,” he said. “We’re not used to cameras, and it can be intrusive and distracting, and one more thing for a judge to have to worry about. I don’t think we’re going to see a lot more of it.”
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