Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard, the Shitshow Trial of the Century

Photo: Craig Hudson/AP/Shutterstock

Shortly after 5 p.m. on May 27, the sidewalk outside the Fairfax County, Virginia, courthouse was awash with breathless spectators. Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial was nearing its conclusion — closings wrapped that afternoon, and jurors started deliberating — and Depp’s fans were there to endorse him. No matter that the actor had already left the building; supporters eagerly greeted his lawyers, who over the course of six trial weeks had become celebrities in their own right. As attorney Ben Chew left the building, dozens of people swarmed his black SUV, cheering as they jockeyed for a photo. Like so much about the Depp-Heard trial, which ended on June 1, 2022, with a verdict awarding Depp more than $10 million and Heard $2 million, the scene felt surreal. How quickly a case about free speech turned into a stranger-than-fanfiction moment involving stampedes of devotees, support alpacas and all.

The soapy elements of the trial — it involved two conventionally attractive, rich, white people whose marital affairs were being aired out for the public — appeared poised to draw otherwise disinterested people into discourse on the First Amendment and accusers’ freedom to discuss allegations. After all, this was supposed to be a case about whether a woman who spoke openly about abuse she had faced had the right to do so without facing legal backlash. “At issue in the case is far more than two boldface names: it’s about domestic violence, free speech and victims’ rights,” I wrote before the trial kicked off. “That’s all far from the usual tittle-tattle that happens when celebrities hit the court circuit.” I was wrong. “This trial is insane. It has all the elements of trashy reality TV, but involves an actual A-lister,” one colleague covering the trial told me last week. “I do think the Schadenfreude element is huge here. Who doesn’t love seeing successful people endure such a monumental fall from grace?” Another colleague remarked last week: “The trial is purely for entertainment and they’re both making fools out of themselves.”

Some have denounced the media, specifically the presence of a livestream, for turning this high-profile trial into a spectacle on social media, but the proceedings themselves — and Judge Penney Azcarate’s handling of them — are deserving of their own skepticism. (The courthouse’s lack of a mask mandate only added to the generally uncanny atmosphere.) Prior to the trial, Judge Azcarate vowed not to let proceedings devolve into a circus, but eventually, that very thing happened. “There will be no overnight camping on Courthouse grounds,” a court order mandated. “Any violation of this order may be found as contempt and will be punished accordingly.” On day one of the trial, Depp fans started showing up around 5 a.m., which isn’t quite overnight camping. As the days and weeks wore on, however, overnight camping became de rigueur. Officials eventually started barring fans from lining up before 1 a.m., but they just migrated to the sidewalk outside a parking garage several hundred feet away. Some arrived in the early evening. Toward the end of the trial, fans were sprinting toward the courthouse at 12:50 a.m. During my few days there in person, it seemed like courthouse employees were tolerant of the attention surrounding the proceedings, though they recognized the absurdity. Asked near the end of the trial if they were excited that the crowds would soon be leaving, several employees smiled and responded “yes.” “Not you, just the crazies,” one security guard said. Another courthouse employee joked, “We’ve never had so much fun in our lives!” before commenting on the YouTube livestream of the trial and expressing pride “that our technology stood up.”

The spectacle outside the courthouse never quite bled inside Azcarate’s courtroom when I was there for openings, although there were hints of it. In her order, Azcarate said that seats for public and press “will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis and will be subject to availability.” Unlike almost every other high-profile trial, there were no seats reserved for the media save for one spot for Court TV, which was responsible for the livestream. On some days, few other reporters got in. “The judge [would] rather have Depp fans sit in the courtroom over the press,” one of my colleagues told me. “How is this a fair trial?” During opening statements, fans behaved — everyone had been repeatedly warned that any breach of decorum would result in expulsion — but it’s hard to believe the jurors didn’t notice a bunch of Depp supporters packing the benches.

There were a handful of Heard supporters at court, as well. A man who identified himself as Dan Kim, 26, stood outside the courthouse on May 27 with a white sign that read, “#ISTANDWITHAMBER.” “I don’t think it’s a big deal,” Kim said, referring to the smaller presence of Heard fans in contrast to Depp’s. “I think that sometimes it is disappointing to see some of the behavior of Johnny Depp fans. I’ve been threatened. I’ve been called a loser, [but] I have thick skin.” When Heard arrived at court that same day, she was booed by Depp supporters packing the sidewalk behind the courthouse. “I’ve heard Amber’s stories and accusations that she’s been saying about Johnny Depp, and I just think he needs all the support that he can get, because I don’t believe anything she says,” one Depp supporter, Maryanne, told me.

As even a casual follower of the trial knows by now, Depp testified that he was bringing this case to clear his name after claiming Heard’s 2018 Washington Post op-ed defamed him. The actor could have tried repairing his image outside of a public trial, crisis PR veteran Juda Engelmayer told me, but he elected not to. Throughout the trial, Heard accused Depp of abusing her repeatedly during their time together, including several incidents of alleged sexual abuse. The jury heard recordings where Heard seemed to taunt Depp, and she testified about hitting him during an argument. Both claimed to have suffered financial damage amid their dueling abuse claims and denials. Neither walks away from this trial looking good, although Depp appears to come out as the winner. The jury awarded him far more money and, perhaps more importantly for his career prospects — whatever those might be — the proceedings proved he still captivated fans.

For my colleagues, the end-of-trial feeling was one of severe fatigue. “I hate celebrities,” one remarked. “One thing is for sure: I will never watch a Johnny Depp or Amber Heard movie for as long as I live,” another said. “Depp is putting on the performance of his lifetime — not Amber Heard.”

“The two alpacas, Truffle and Teddy, come away looking good,” that colleague said. “Everyone else walks away losing.”

Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard, Shitshow Trial of the Century