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Courtroom artists take us where many have never been

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OK, show of hands. How many readers have actually sat inside a courtroom and watched a trial? Having been assigned to cover countless high-profile trials over the years, I have to admit I relish it.

I love going to courthouses with their stately façades and imposing corridors. And inside it’s like watching a big vat of human soup. We all get stirred up together in a courthouse. The poor, the middle class, the rich. People seeking justice, people in big trouble with the law, people whose families are falling apart. The process is fascinating to watch.

Inside courtrooms where the most-watched trials take place there is a group of unsung regulars that I have never written about – professional courtroom artists. Whenever I can I try to get a seat next to one of them. Watching them work is a treat.

Cameras aren’t always allowed in court (especially in federal court) and so the artist is there as a front-row eyewitness to capture the scene, those special moments that can be shown on television or in print to give the public a real feel for what it was like in the room.

Elizabeth Williams is one of these artists, and she has just accomplished something remarkable. After a nine-year effort, she has brought together the artwork of five of the nation’s most experienced courtroom artists in the book “The Illustrated Courtroom – Fifty Years of Court Room Art.” It is a delicious retrospective for court aficionados who can’t get enough of headliner trials.

The vast collection of iconic art is punctuated by captivating personal stories from all five artists: Howard Brodie, Richard Tomlinson, Bill Robles, Aggy Kenny and, of course, Williams herself.

The book begins with the late Brodie’s intricate rendering of the courtroom in which Jack Ruby was found guilty of murdering presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in 1964. Also included is a sketch of Ruby as he heard the verdict.

“Just before the panel brought in a death sentence, Ruby’s Adam’s apple quivered and he gulped,” Brodie wrote on the bottom of that day’s drawing.

From that time in a Dallas courtroom half a century ago, the artwork flows like the pages of a legal history book. Among the many other Brodie accomplishments: the Watergate cover-up trial and the Patty Hearst case.

Richard Tomlinson, also now deceased, was there to see radical Abbie Hoffman on trial for selling cocaine. The artist describes how his long-held philosophy, “To approach each subject as if it is the only chance I’ll ever have to draw them, because it just might be,” came in handy during that 1973 trial. Hoffman skipped bail, changed his name and appearance and didn’t re-surface until 1980.

Tomlinson’s bold drawings of David Berkowitz (aka the “Son of Sam”) are powerful, as was his portrait of Mark David Chapman (John Lennon’s killer), and he spent two full years drawing participants in the Black Panther 21 case.

“Now I’m glad the book took nine years,” Williams told me on the phone. “Because if I’d started it later Howard and Richard would have been gone and we would have had no recollections from them.”

Aggie Kenny’s watercolor sketches are riveting. Among her included works are scenes from the trials of Iran-Contra defendants like John Poindexter and Oliver North.

“Strange details sometimes stick with you and I was very aware of Ollie’s mother wearing a prim bright-yellow hat,” Kenny recalls.

Also in the book, Kenny’s drawings from inside the U.S. Supreme Court, John Chambers the “Preppie Murderer,” Sydney Biddle Barrows aka “The Mayflower Madam” (another who favored prim hats) and Jerry Sandusky.

Her 1974 portrait of James Earl Ray is shocking in his nonchalance as he faced charges of assassinating the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Drawing (Ray) in a makeshift courtroom set up in a penitentiary was a first for me,” Kenny says. “I felt as if I was drawing an infamous felon in a school cafeteria.” Kenny reveals that another courtroom artist there that day married Ray the next year.

Much of the book highlights the work of the talented and prolific Bill Robles, considered to be today’s dean of courtroom artists. Based in Los Angeles, he has covered trials for CBS news for more than 40 years and remembers as if it were yesterday his first assignment: the 1970 murder case against Charles Manson and his followers. Robles’ iconic drawing and insider story of how Manson nearly caused a mistrial by displaying to the jury a newspaper headline that read “Manson Guilty Nixon Declares” is not to be missed. Robles’ rendition of the moment Manson grabbed a pencil and leapt to attack the judge graces the book’s front cover.

Robles went on to famously capture for posterity the trials of Roman Polanski, John DeLorean, Timothy McVeigh, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and many others.

Included in Williams’ work are drawings from several dirty money cases including the infamous Bernard Madoff’s. Williams was the only artist to render the moment Madoff was led away in handcuffs by federal marshals and it was seen worldwide. Her work from several mob trials are also in the book, along with her personal recollections of each (John Gotti once stood over her and asked in a menacing tone why her drawing of him “wasn’t smiling”).

For me this book was a great trip down memory lane and it reminded me what a service these special artists do for the rest of us. They take us inside courtrooms where many have never been.

DianeDimond.com; email to Diane@DianeDimond.com.

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