Diane Dimond: Rembrandts of the Courtroom Provide a Look Back at High-Profile Trials
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 facades 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 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. Brodie recalled the judge sat on an inflated rubber-doughnut cushion and “decreed that only those within the rail could smoke, denying newsmen and spectators the privilege.”
From that time in a Dallas courtroom a half-century ago, the artwork flows like the pages of a legal history book. Among the pages are many other Brodie accomplishments: capturing the action at the Watergate cover-up trial, the Patty Hearst case and scores of others.
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 resurface until 1980.
“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.”
Kenny’s water-colored sketches are riveting. Among her included works are scenes from the trials of Iran-Contra defendants such as 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, Robert 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 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 his first assignment, the 1970 murder case against Charles Manson and his followers, as if it were yesterday. Robles’ iconic drawing and insider story of how Manson came to display to the jury a newspaper headline that read, “Manson Guilty Nixon Declares” and nearly caused a mistrial is not to be missed. Robles’ rendition of the moment Manson grabbed a pencil and leaped 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 too many others to mention here.
Included in Williams’ works are drawings from several dirty money cases including the infamous Bernard Madoff case. Williams was the only artist to render the moment Madoff was led away in handcuffs by federal marshals, and it was seen worldwide. Her works 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”) and give the reader a real feel for the pressures on a courtroom artist.
As the verdict neared at the Martha Stewart trial, Williams recalls, “The TV networks had their producers in the courtroom with red and black squares of paper they could hold up (on the courthouse steps) to indicate guilty or not guilty.” All correspondents had to do was glance up from their camera position to see the signal and instantly report out the news. The artwork was expected to be finished immediately.
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.