Usually it’s the legal case, not the courtroom artist, making headlines. But that wasn’t Jane Rosenberg’s experience when she depicted New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during Deflategate last August. Like all courtroom illustrators plying their craft, Rosenberg was racing the clock, trying to nail the scene. The resulting sketch showed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and an unhappy-looking Brady, each flanked by his attorneys, at the hearing in federal court in lower Manhattan. There was just one wrinkle: Brady’s handsome face resembled a portrait of Dorian Gray, and it instantly went viral.
Within minutes of its transmission, multiple memes of the memorable image were flooding the Internet, and Rosenberg was fielding calls from all the major news networks and talk shows, including Good Morning America and The Tonight Show. Within days, Brady’s image was being reproduced on T-shirts, mugs, and even cookies. “Everybody called me. There was not a single station that didn’t request my presence,” said Rosenberg. “Lots of people wanted to buy the sketch or have me donate it to charity. The bakery said they would pay me royalties, but I just asked for cookies, and I still have some in my freezer.”
Such an extreme reaction is an anomaly, but courtroom art as a genre has always been full of drama. While the court functions as the illustrators’ studio, it is first and foremost a stage, one whose players range from the witness to the defendant to the prosecutor to the judge and jury. No wonder caricaturists like Daumier had a field day depicting the court scenes of their time. The advent of photography in the mid-1800s greatly diminished the need for courtroom art. But that changed again in 1935, when the Charles Lindbergh kidnapping case, in which the aviator’s 20-month-old son was abducted, became such a media circus that news cameras were banned from courtrooms. To this day, they are not allowed in federal court, although they are permitted in most state courts. Courtroom art was in its heyday from the mid-’30s until 1988, when cameras invaded the court again for the Howard Beach case, which involved a white mob attacking three black men in Queens, New York. One was killed by a car while trying to escape.
The O. J. Simpson case in 1994 once again brought courtroom cameras under fire, creating a second mini-boom for courtroom illustrators, with media outlets usually employing one regular artist. Since then, the proliferation of cable television, the advent of the Internet, and the waning economy have combined to greatly shrink the market for courtroom art. “We used to cover cases gavel to gavel,” said Christine Cornell, who has been sketching trials since 1975. “Now people are only interested in highlights. It’s just a few trials that get daily coverage. Nobody wants to invest that kind of money.”
Fewer artists are covering fewer courts—in Los Angeles, for instance, Bill Robles and Mona Shafer Edwards have the field pretty much to themselves. But the drama of cases in a celebrity- and social media–obsessed world continues to generate fascinating cultural fodder, with courtroom artists providing the best (and sometimes the only) close-up view, whether it is Edwards zooming in on the red status soles of Lindsay Lohan’s Christian Louboutin shoes during her 2010 probation trial, or Elizabeth Williams focusing on the famous fake Rothko canvas just after the Knoedler fraud trial was settled in January, a luminous red rectangle way off to one side of the courtroom, yet still the center of the action. Even in the age of Instagram, courtroom art is a compelling genre.
Besides a mastery of the basic skills—the ability to capture a scene or likeness on deadline—the artists each have their own approach. But for all of them, the first priority on entering the courtroom is simple: not guessing who is innocent or guilty, but getting the best seat in the house. “My goal is to be there as early as possible. The first artist gets the best seat,” said Rosenberg, who draws with pastel and uses a luggage rack as an ad-hoc easel.
Since 1980 Rosenberg has covered trials ranging from the case of model Marla Hanson, whose face was viciously slashed in 1986, to that of the “Cannibal Cop,” former New York Police Department officer Gilberto Valle, whose online fantasies of abducting, torturing, killing, and eating women earned him his gruesome nickname in 2013.
“I want to get the best angle on the person most important to the story,” Rosenberg said. But even so, a good angle is never guaranteed. “The Bill Cosby sexual-assault hearing in February was a nightmare. There was a giant monitor in front of the witness, and I was trapped in a seat blocked by it. I could barely catch a glimpse of his profile”—or for that matter, of the star himself. Later in the day, Rosenberg jockeyed for a better position and produced a taut sketch of Cosby, seated between his attorneys.
The obstructed view is even more of an issue in a drama-filled case like that of the Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which Rosenberg covered every day for three months last spring. “It was a hard place to sketch. I was right behind the defendant, with a row of lawyers in front of me. All I could see was a blurry head the size of a pin. Every time he walked in and out of the courtroom, I desperately waited for that moment to catch a glimpse of his face from the front. It was very dramatic, a lot of people with missing limbs and pictures of injuries. The lawyers were also holding up guns, and they showed the pressure-cooker bomb and other weapons, and even unfurled a giant ISIS flag in the courtroom.”
Courtroom scenes range from the horrific to the humorous. “In the Cannibal Cop trial,” Rosenberg said, “they showed all these horrible torture pictures—naked women roasted on pits. It was really crazy, but it was exciting to draw nudes instead of people in suits. I recently covered a trial about a guy selling fake vintage wine. It was a treat to draw wine bottles, and to be a real artist and do a still life. But usually it’s: give a splash headline, and that’s it. They don’t want the meat and the details.”
Elizabeth Williams is coauthor of the book The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Courtroom Art. She began her courtroom career in 1980, and works with a brush pen, oil pastel, and oil paint sticks. “You want to frame the scene so that it is journalistically correct,” she explained. “You are the replacement for the camera, that’s your job. When you see one of my drawings you should hopefully get a sense that you were sitting where I was sitting.”
Honing a news sense is also a necessity, and artists develop an eagle eye for each case’s key moment. “In the [Bernie] Madoff trial it was him going to prison in handcuffs,” Williams said. “Most of the time white-collar criminals are not remanded after they plead guilty. But when the marshal slapped those handcuffs on him, I knew that was extremely newsworthy. In the Knoedler case it was when [collector Domenico] De Sole was on the stand with his Rothko. They brought out the painting, and it was him and this picture. It was like ‘Oh my God. That’s the shot.’ And then he looked at it, he pointed at it, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, there it is.’ It was a dramatic scene, and it kind of told the whole story of this man and this picture that he had bought for $8 million and it’s a fake.”
Another memorable moment occurred during the trial of Sean Bell, the black man shot to death by police in 2006. “The really interesting scene that I loved,” said Williams, “was when Detective Gescard Isnora, who shot Bell and Sean Bell’s friend Joseph Guzman [who was shot eleven times], was identified by Guzman when he was being cross-examined by Anthony Riccio. There was a moment when Riccio said to his client, ‘Isnora stand up,’ and he was pointing at Guzman and asking him, ‘Is this the man who you saw?’ It was just such a dramatic moment! The defendant is standing, the lawyer is pointing and gesticulating and the witness is angry and upset, and you can see the judge’s face tense up and it was like, ‘Wow this is the moment. This is what it is all about.’ ”
The central question of innocence or guilt is not one that the courtroom artist contemplates—at least not professionally. “We are always so curious about what the jury’s going to do. We were sitting in the cafeteria waiting for the jury to finish deliberating in the John Delorean [1983 drug smuggling] case and it was almost like we were a jury ourselves,” said Williams.
Still, sometimes something apparently editorial inadvertently slips into a sketch, whether it is a terrorist’s evil demeanor or a famous mobster’s jaunty attitude. Marilyn Church, coauthor of the book The Art of Justice, has covered trials since 1974, and was almost immediately hired by the New York Times. In order to quickly fill big flat areas, she uses water-soluble Caran d’Ache crayons and colored pencils. “The challenge is to anticipate what is going to happen. You don’t know if someone is going to jump up or collapse in tears,” she said. “You always have to be ready to make changes. I find courts so exciting and thrilling. I am looking to absorb the energy and to get it down, the confrontation and the drama.”
Church has seen plenty of it, from one of her first trials, the 1976 right-to-die case of Karen Quinlan (a young woman in a vegetative state whose parents sued to have her disconnected from life support), to 1980’s headmistress-murderess Jean Harris—“the way she dressed, Chanel suits, the perfect little low shoes, so proper”—to the harrowing, and ultimately controversial, 1989 case of the Central Park jogger, who was allegedly attacked by a group of black teenagers. Some court spectators were so angry when that verdict was read that they brandished a banner in front of the judge, reading, “We know where you live.” That and the judge’s furious reaction—and bulging eyes—were aptly caught by Church. “I will not be intimidated and I will not allow a miscarriage of justice,” the judge thundered. “What a moment that was,” Church recalled. “It was so frightening that they had the nerve to bring that into court.”
But nothing was quite as frightening as her experience in 1977, during the Son of Sam case. Church and a few other artists were permitted to draw serial killer David Berkowitz in lockdown at the Kings County Hospital psychiatric ward. “I was sitting within three feet of him. I was terrified because, as a young woman with long dark hair, I did resemble his victims. I just froze looking at him. He had kind of ethereal spaced-out eyes that were piercing. It was one of the few times it really got to me. The Robert Chambers trial [in 1986] was another, because those two trials were about young women, and Chambers was this teenage boy, about the age of my teenage boy, accused of murder, and his parents were there every day. I loved drawing his flesh in pale color. He was so colorless, this big handsome guy, so arrogant and showing no remorse.”
Church was also called into WABC-TV on December 8, 1980, the night of John Lennon’s murder, and asked to re-create the scene of the unforgettable crime that had occurred in front of New York’s fabled Dakota building—entirely from verbal descriptions. The sketches won an Emmy. “I did four drawings in the space of about two hours at the television station.” She later covered Mark David Chapman’s trial and drew him in court. “I felt a terrible anger; he was so pathetic and so needy of attention. It was revolting looking at him because of what he did. It’s hard to keep down your reaction sometimes.”
Courtroom artists strive to remain accurate and objective, much to their subjects’ discomfort. “John Gotti was very taken with himself and his appearance—always dressed in flashy suits,” Church said. “He also knew who the artists were. One day I was looking through binoculars and drawing him, and he looked at me and pointed to his neck and made a ‘no, no’ motion to indicate he was watching me and I shouldn’t make his neck jowly.” During the 1994 World Trade Center bombing case, the lawyer of the defendant, Mohammed Salameh, came over to the whole group of artists and said, “My client does not want you to draw him looking like a terrorist.”
Sometimes the challenges go beyond capturing the scene that plays out in the courtroom; occasionally the artists are forced to draw from memory. When there is a grand jury, for instance, the key players can only be caught entering or leaving the courtroom. But few illustrators have had to reconstruct an entire trial from memory, as Aggie Kenny did during the Jim Jones cult suicide case in Guyana in 1979. “I was sent by ABC news to Jonestown and put up in a hotel for a number of days,” Kenny said. “We immediately found out we were not allowed to draw in the courtroom, and that presented an ultimate challenge. They let us sit there and observe, but I couldn’t even take notes.”
Another case that provided a unique challenge was that of Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, in 2009, in which about a dozen witnesses stood up and delivered five-minute impact statements, one after another, making it hard, if not impossible, to know who was going to stand up when. “It was difficult to be journalistically correct,” explained Kenny. “With all those victims you have to choose one and it’s hard to know which, so you just do the best you can.”
Court artist Christine Cornell solved that visual problem by showing all the victims standing, with the one weeping victim she had chosen to focus on shown more prominently than the others, which earned some approbation. “You could only see them when they were standing, not sitting,” Cornell said. “It was an extraordinary circumstance. I think what I did was a creative way of solving a difficult problem; it was not meant to give the impression they were all standing simultaneously.” After that trial, the Associated Press issued guidelines requiring artists to show each scene at just a single moment, rather than condensing the action.
Cornell, who since 1975 has covered most of the big New York–area cases, is attuned to telltale gestures and moments. “You are thinking about the story, what visual elements you want that will tell the story best.” During the 1987 Tawana Brawley case, for instance, in which a 15-year-old black girl accused six white men of raping her, Cornell observed Reverend Al Sharpton testifying. “One of his wonderful little ways of expressing himself was to roll his eyes to the heavens when he was asked a question, as if he were kind of searching for an answer. Which is a nicer way of saying he was lying, or at least hedging his bets,” she said. “That wasn’t going to be the only drawing of the day, but I really wanted to get it.”
Sometimes the signature details are objects, not gestures. “Imelda Marcos always wore black and carried a rosary,” Cornell recalled. “Gotti used to rotate his hand so that his pinky ring was uppermost, and bring his fist down in a very magisterial gesture. You always look for that kind of stuff. Talk about props: Vinny the Chin came in a wheelchair, but if you stared at him through binoculars, you could see that he was not out of it, he was very alert, it was an act. In the Cannibal Cop case, all those pictures of those women on spits with strategically placed carrots and apples in their mouths—that was pretty horrific and creepy.”
It doesn’t get much creepier than the legendary trial at which Los Angeles–based artist Bill Robles got his start in 1970: that of cult leader Charles Manson. Robles’s drawing for CBS of Manson lunging at the judge, with a bailiff grabbing Manson mid-air around the waist, is perhaps one of the 20th century’s best-known courtroom images. “It led the news that night on Cronkite,” Robles said. “It’s still the biggest and longest trial I covered. I was there every day for nine and a half months. Manson went through phases. He started with a full beard and head of hair and gradually went into a ’50s look and a goatee and then to a shaved head with a swastika carved into his forehead—as did the girls. I had never been in a courtroom before, and I was thrust in with media from New York. It was quite a baptism.”
Over the months, Robles drew everything from the pathology charts of the victims’ wounds, explained by the famous L.A. coroner Thomas Noguchi, to Manson when he briefly appeared on the witness stand. “He had what we called a ‘Manson stare.’ He would gaze at the media and pick a certain press person and stare at them. One time I had my markers in a shaving kit on the railing and I inadvertently knocked them over onto the hardwood floor, and it made horrific noise in this quiet courtroom. Manson looked at me as if to say, ‘Shame on you.’ I don’t know how he used to communicate with some of the girls, who had also shaved their heads, but they would sometimes stand up and say ‘Heil Hitler.’ As an illustrator, you have to freeze that moment.”
When Robles covered the Patty Hearst trial, he caught the fraught moment when the kidnapped heiress’s father, newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, represented by high-profile attorney F. Lee Bailey, signed the $1.5 million bail check. Robles also covered both O. J. Simpson trials. “It was a media circus. I went in for CBS news, because they televised that trial. They started losing jurors, and I was going in there to do the alternates, and you were supposed to draw the jurors without faces. I did a whole jury with alternates, and when the trial judge saw it, I got subpoenaed. Even though I had shown them without faces, Judge Ito thought they were too recognizable.” After that, artists had to get a seal of approval in the press office, “Judge Ito approved.”
Like everyone else in the nation, Robles “was caught up in the whole drama from day one with the car chase. I remember drawing Ron Goldman’s father. He was crying on the witness stand, a very handsome man, easy to draw. I was astonished that O. J. was seated so close to the Goldmans. He was arrogant, the way he talked to the press. I saw him arraigned for the murder and I couldn’t believe how big he was. He must have just manipulated these people like dolls.”
But Robles’s most difficult trial was that of Michael Jackson in his 2005 molestation case. “You would start at 8:30 and get three 15-minute breaks during the day. I was on a starvation diet for four and a half months. I just had time for pizza from the media trucks. I had to produce two drawings for every break. It was grueling. But it was my most lucrative trial. I had a front-row seat, the best seat in the house. It was a huge challenge. There were media from all over the world. They wanted all they could get. There were no cameras allowed in the court, so they could only shoot Jackson when he was coming and going. And they had to have images.”
Robles humorously caught the trial’s endless grind in what became a double-spread: the jurors at the beginning of the trial “diligently taking notes,” and then at the end of the trial, “bored stiff, with their feet up on the rails, totally nonchalant.” He also met Jackson, who had one of his lawyers ask if he could meet the illustrator. “I showed him a drawing he had seen on TV and he lit up like a candle. He was very gentle.”
Recently Robles has been covering the trial of Enrique Marquez, who was accused of providing rifles to the San Bernardino terrorists. “I can’t believe how young he is,” Robles said. “He’s a very calm, handcuffed, chubby guy with a baby face. It’s always exciting to see them come in with chains on their legs and handcuffed. It is stimulating as an art image. I’ve had a few other stereotypical ISIS guys with big black beards. That’s always exciting. Not run of the mill.”
As a Washington, D.C.–based courtroom journalist, William Hennessy has covered cases ranging from Bill Clinton’s impeachment to Mayor Marion Barry’s drug trial to the trial of the 20th hijacker in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “You always have to be prepared for something unexpected. Yesterday, during a simple bond review, one of the defendants fainted. Thank you.” But covering high-stakes political trials also involves some tricks of the trade. “When Hillary was called in to testify to the grand jury during Whitewater, we were all there outside the courtroom to sketch her arrival,” Hennessy said. “But they took her up a back elevator, and we never saw her. A month later, when Monica Lewinsky was tied into the Whitewater investigation and I heard Monica was going to testify, I remembered that and was able to catch her as she got into that same elevator.”
The trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the 20th hijacker, was “sort of a torturous, slow-motion process. Numerous, very gruesome videos were shown, and all the while, he smiled and clapped and nodded his head and routinely shouted out ‘Death to America’ and ‘Praise Osama Bin Laden’ every time he left the courtroom. It was amazing to me that the court security remained as calm as they did. It so easily could have gotten into a physical situation. He had already pleaded guilty; the trial was to determine whether he would get the death penalty. Evidence from victims justified the death sentence. It was stressful and emotional to the point of playing computerized images of the plane crashing in the field, complete with audio, and he’s sitting there smirking. It was gut-wrenching. At one point he asked to see my drawings. I didn’t show them to him.”
Interestingly, there seems to be an East Coast school and a West Coast school of courtroom art. The L.A.-based illustrators tend to create much sketchier images. Even Robles’s famous Manson lunge is an exciting blur of motion rather than a minutely detailed drawing. The same can be said of Mona Shafer Edwards’s work. Edwards, who began her courtroom career in 1985, got her start as a fashion illustrator, and it shows in the style of her pen-and-marker drawings. “The most important thing to me is to get the emotion and the movement and a real human quality and fluidity to the art and composition,” Shafer said. My work isn’t based around interior or architectural elements. I am interested in body language, expression, dynamics. It’s very different from the East Coast artists. I pretty much ignore the flag or state seal. I don’t care what the courtroom looks like. I want to know what is going on in court.”
By contrast, the work of New York–based Rosenberg, Church, Williams, Kenny, and Cornell is more fully executed, including the courtroom’s often atmospheric interior. But whether they are creating loose impressions or much more detailed studies, the courtroom artists themselves are key witnesses to a unique and important history.
Phoebe Hoban is a New York–based writer on culture and the arts, and the author of several books, most recently Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 110 under the title “Trial & Image.”