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By the time the alpacas arrive outside the Fairfax County Courthouse, it's not really that surprising. Andrea Diaz of Lorton, Va., is a Johnny Depp fan who has been watching his defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard, and thinks it's "really messed up." She started a business during the coronavirus pandemic where she brings alpacas to kids' houses to raise their spirits, and wants to do the same for Depp.
"I thought the alpacas might brighten his day," Diaz says last Monday, not long before Depp first takes the stand. She acknowledges the Pirates of the Caribbean star - who enters and exits the courthouse each day through a gated back entrance - may not actually see Dolce and Inti, the emotional support alpacas who are gamely posing for photos with passersby. "But I figured I would just give it a shot."
The scene outside the Depp-Heard trial, entering its third week on Monday, has transformed the Fairfax County court complex from a place where Northern Virginia residents contest parking tickets to the stage for one of the biggest celebrity court cases in recent memory. The area has seen its share of high-profile cases, but a trial involving one of the world's most famous movie stars has brought with it a slight whiff of the surreal.
"Read the news," one sheriff's deputy mumbles as the umpteenth observer walks by the "John C. Depp, II v. Amber Laura Heard" sign outside the courtroom and wonders out loud why in the world Johnny Depp is in Fairfax.
Depp, 58, is suing Heard, 36, for $50 million for defamation over an opinion piece she wrote in The Washington Post in 2018 saying she had become a public figure representing domestic abuse. Though she did not name Depp, she had filed for divorce and a restraining order against him two years prior, alleging he physically assaulted her. Depp has denied all claims of abuse and said the op-ed caused irreparable damage to his career. After his lawyer said Heard's allegations were a hoax, Heard countersued him for $100 million for defamation.
The actor's lawyers filed the suit in Virginia because The Post, which is not a defendant in this case, houses its printing press and online server in Fairfax County.
Depp and Heard appear in the courtroom every day, not making eye contact and occasionally leaning over to speak to their attorneys. Depp's testimony lasted for more than seven hours over Tuesday and Wednesday before Heard's defense lawyer, Ben Rottenborn, began cross-examination in earnest, taking up all of Thursday. He is scheduled to continue Monday. Depp's appearance on the stand injects an extra flurry of activity into the proceedings. The courtroom fills to near-capacity most days, and Depp's fans tend to murmur and even snicker quietly to themselves when the actor talks back to Rottenborn. ("He's getting sassy," one whispers.)
The actual legal arguments in Courtroom 5J are as serious and solemn as you would expect from a case that involves allegations of physical abuse from each party - denied by both sides - and an accusation of sexual assault from Heard, which Depp's representative called "fictitious." The judge, Penney Azcarate, signed an order banning selfies or autographs. A deputy warns courtroom spectators against laughing loudly, cheering or rolling their eyes.
But in a case involving celebrities, the scene is bound to turn intense. And strange. (A Fairfax County public information officer declined a request to make any officials available to discuss how different this is compared with other trials.) Outlets including Court TV and Law & Crime are live-streaming from inside the courtroom, which brought even more curious bystanders out during the second week. News cameras line up outside the front of the courthouse, while photographers stand on ladders near the rear exit to capture Depp or Heard coming and going.
The British media has shown up - the Daily Mail, the BBC - in addition to the Associated Press, New York Post, the Independent and more. Nick Wallis, a British journalist, crowdfunded his trip here and is repaying his audience with live-tweeting of the trial as well as a newsletter and YouTube updates.
Observers line up well before sunrise to procure one of the 100 brightly colored spectator wristbands that are available starting at 7 a.m. If the wristband looks remotely tampered with, you will not be allowed in. Some spectators are intrigued local residents ("I'm a true-crime nut," says one Arlington woman who took the day off work) or college students from the nearby George Mason University. In the trial's first week, one reporter arrived too late to get in the courtroom and offered $50 to one spectator for his wristband. (The offer was scornfully declined.)
Although there are some Heard supporters, the loudest presence are Depp loyalists, who have traveled from all over. Jacinta Gillespie of Brisbane, Australia - who was "very disappointed" when Depp lost a 2020 libel suit against the U.K.-based Sun after a headline called him a "wife beater" - says she took four weeks of vacation to attend. Several carry "Justice for Johnny" signs, echoing the social media hashtag. Tiffany Lunn of St. Mary's County, Md., holds a poster that reads "Wish He Never Heard!!" with a picture of the actress. Others bring flowers. Some have pirate flags as a nod to Depp's most successful character, Captain Jack Sparrow. They get there early for the good seats. They don't leave the building for lunch, so they can get the same seats after the break.
Around 5 p.m., when court adjourns, some fans try to properly time their exits, so they can hustle to the back of the building, where Depp leaves in a black Cadillac Escalade, zooming past the nearby Red Hot & Blue barbecue restaurant as he heads back to his hotel. He will usually wave to them out his window; some days, you can hear screams as the ride passes by, and see the disappointment on the faces of those who didn't make it.
A pair of women break into a run up the hill toward Chain Bridge Road to no avail, then strategize about leaving the courtroom earlier the next day. Others revel in their brief fortune: "I saw him! I saw him! He waved and I screamed, 'Johnny!' " a woman excitedly reports to someone over FaceTime.
Two fans who identify themselves as Arya and Isabelle make it just in time to see Depp's car. "I've been showing my support online for years, and I had an opportunity to show support in person, and I think that makes a profoundly huge difference," Arya says, adding that he started a GoFundMe to raise money to travel to Virginia from Michigan.
Isabelle says she arrived from New York and got a job at PetSmart to afford the trip. She earned enough to stay until about May 7, she says, and hopes to return for the last week of the trial, expected to wrap up right before Memorial Day. "I know a lot of people, especially the mainstream media and movie critics, think what he's doing is so ridiculous and that he needs to move on," she says. "But from my point of view, . . . he shouldn't just move on, because it's important to get the truth out there."
Heard is also expected to take the stand in her defense. The actress, who has starred in films such as "Aquaman" and "Justice League," isn't as well-known as her ex-husband. "I've already forgot the name of the other party," one prospective juror admitted during jury selection.
Heard has a staunch defender in Christina Taft of Los Angeles, the founder of Worldie, an initiative to use social media for good. Taft has rallied others to show up in defense of the actress, whom she believes is being targeted by nefarious forces online that are amplifying Depp's aggressively vocal fans. She points to a flood of brutal comments directed at the actress on social media, and notes that other people have been driven to drastic measures when they face the same kind of vitriol.
"She's a huge victim of these operations online," Taft said. "And because of them, you can't support her, or anything, because it's very targeted, and most people can't catch that."
By the second week, the county court put tighter security measures in place; deputies started requiring photo IDs and recording the names of everyone who gets a wristband. This may be a result of multiple people being removed from court, including journalist Eve Barlow, a friend of Heard's; Depp's attorneys claimed Barlow was live-tweeting from the courtroom - where no phones are allowed - and showed Heard's lawyer misleading evidence that led to the stricken testimony of one of Depp's witnesses. (A person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations disputes that Barlow did either of those things.) The New York Post reported that two spectators were kicked out after allegedly making threats against Heard on social media.
As the spectacle plays out, other Virginia residents are just trying to go about their business. On a recent afternoon, newlyweds Corey and Kala Bell of Alexandria arrive to pick up their marriage certificate and documents, so Kala can officially change her last name. They ask a video camera operator the reason for all the commotion. He tells them it's for the Johnny Depp trial, and they think he's kidding. Assured it's really happening, they laugh in disbelief.
"We saw the Court TV van, and were like, 'What's going on?' Then I noticed there was a lot of cops," Kala says. She assumed it was about another headline-making case.
"I thought maybe it was related to the 'shopping cart killer,' " Kala says, referring to the man charged with allegedly killing two women in Virginia and transporting their bodies in shopping carts. "I thought it had to be something about him, honestly."