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Manson's Menace and Coppola's Beard

Courtroom artists aim for the intimacy and intrigue of legal dramas.

When I was writing The Devil’s Dozen, I needed a picture for each chapter. I found no photos from the trial of Canadian pig farmer, Robert Pickton, but I did locate a courtroom drawing. Until I read The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art, by artist Elizabeth Williams and true crime writer Sue Russell, I never realized what a fascinating realm this is. I was especially intrigued with the friendships and mentoring that evolved in this unique network of talent.

As soon as I heard about this book, I couldn’t wait to see the art. Then I realized that all of the chosen cases were attention-grabbers: Mick Jagger, Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, O.J. Simson, John Gotti, and many more. Williams and Russell not only deliver a powerful courtroom history but also a saucy summary of some high profile cases.

Originally done for media outlets in proceedings where cameras were banned, these renderings give us eyes into some intense human dramas. Courtroom artists attend to a trial’s most memorable moments. “Capturing any kind of emotional meltdown or outburst is an absolute must,” says Williams.

Michael Jackson trial

When drawing a defendant, attorney, or judge, they look for distinctive features. Francis Ford Coppola’s beard, Mark David Chapman’s chipmunk cheeks, Michael Jackson’s “big hair,” and Mick Jagger’s lips pulled into a frown: These are the things that give the artists a hook on which to hang their talent. “An interesting design element like a hat or dark sunglasses on a heavy-set mob witness can be the foundation of a composition,” says Aggie Kenny, one of the featured artists.

Besides Kenny and Williams, this book also features the work of three other celebrated courtroom artists: Howard Brodie, Bill Robles, and Richard Tomlinson. Bestselling novelist and former head of Manhattan’s prosecutor of sex crimes Linda Fairstein sets the mood with an insightful foreword.

The idea for this book was born during the Martha Stewart trial, when Williams met Edward Sorel, who was working for the Atlantic Monthly. He suggested that she consider doing an illustrated children’s book about historic trials. She decided to do one for all of us instead.

As Williams introduces the artists, she also describes what she learned from them in terms of their chosen styles. Brodie used opera glasses to see facial expressions, and the self-taught water colorist Aggie Kenny could immerse into her work so deeply that she lost touch with her immediate surroundings. Some prefer black-and-white while others rely on color.

All of these artists focus on the intimate blend of drama and personality. They capture the clenched fist, the look of astonishment, the confident posture, and the distinctive personalities and fashions of all the players, especially those who are larger than life.

“He had a warmth, an inner quality,” said Brodie about Charles Manson, “and I could see why all those people followed him. They didn’t follow him because he was menacing. Absolutely he had charisma.” Brodie sensed that Manson was aware of him and often posed specifically for him.

Tomlinson had once drawn a nervous Mafia defendant: “He couldn’t keep his hands from pulling on the chewing gum in his mouth,” he said, “and he had strings of gum stuck to the sleeve of his really expensive silk suit.”

During the “preppie murder” trial, Williams found State Supreme Court Justice Howard E. Bell “fun to illustrate because of his great expressions and gestures. He got emotional and you could see him really pondering the issues during the sidebars and thinking things over.’” She also covered the Martha Stewart trial, aiming to “capture the dichotomy of Martha: pretty mixed with power.”

Martha Stweart

Sometimes the artist actually gets to meet the subject. Robles recalls his experience at the Michael Jackson trial. “During a break one day, one of Jackson’s lawyers took me up to meet Jackson to show him a drawing I’d done of him standing with his three attorneys as the jury entered the courtroom. Upon seeing it, he just lit up like a Christmas tree. He’d seen that one on TV and loved it.”

Celebrity trials have unique challenges, these artists realize, because the entire world knows the person’s face. If the artist doesn’t get it right – under the pressure of deadlines and perhaps a poor seat in the courtroom – critics are quick to point this out. In addition, they must block their own feelings of awe to keep from being biased or intimidated.

The Illustrated Courtroom offers a unique angle on rich human dramas that grab our attention, framed in the challenging context of the artistic process. The illustrations are plentiful in this remarkable book and the trial overviews crisp. Readers get to revisit some memorable trials while learning about the artist’s rarified arena. I urge anyone who’s fascinated with trial history and dynamics – or even just interested in art – to check it out.

More from Katherine Ramsland Ph.D.
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