Introduction: The Art of the Courtroom Sketch
Jeannie Adair: I Wish They All Could Be California Black Widows
Jennifer Aniston: Pretty Naked Girl!
Frankie Avalon: Big Girls Do Cry
Alejandro Avila: Innocence Lost
Alec Baldwin: Celebrity Grudge Match
Eric Bechler: A Watery Grave
Marcelle Becker: The Maltese Puppy Dog
Robert Blake: Wiseguys
Jim Brown: How to Beat Your Wife’s Car with a Bat
Ennis Cosby: America’s Family
Snoop Doggy Dog: Gangsta Cool
Farrah Fawcett: Charlie’s Fallen Angel
Heidi Fleiss: Peeking into the Little Black Book
Mel Gibson: The Passion of the Stalker
Darlene Gillespie: M-I-C . . . See You in Prison!
Latasha Harlins: Stoking the Fires of Unrest
Dustin Hoffman: Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye
Joe Hunt: The Billionaire Boys Club
Michael Jackson: Playing Peek-a-Boo
Michael Jackson: Neverland’s Lost Boy
Jeffrey Katzenberg: The Not-So-Happiest Place on Earth
Santé Kimes: No Body, No Crime
Rodney King: L.A. Burns
Jack Klugman: The Odd Couple
Marjorie Knoller: The Bane of San Francisco
Tommy Lee: A Walk on the Wild Side
Sondra Locke: How to Eat Lunch in This Town Again
Courtney Love: Rocker Chick Extraordinaire
Andrew Luster: The Lust Factor
Imelda Marcos: Queen of Quality Footwear
Lee Marvin: Pillow Talk, or Palimony
Todd McCormick: Stoned in Bel-Air
McMartin Preschools: A 20th-Century Witch Hunt
Irena Medavoy: Extreme Makeover, L.A. Edition
Menendez Brothers: All in the Family
Patrick Naughton: Fantasy and Felony
Dolly Parton: America’s Sweetheart
Richard Ramirez: The Long, Hot Summer
Ahmed Ressam: New Year’s Eve Blast
Diane Richie: Making House Calls
Winona Ryder: Reality Bites
Maria Shriver & Arnold Schwarzenegger: A Trapped Terminator
O.J. Simpson: If the Glove Doesn’t Fit. . .
O.J. Simpson: Part Deux
Anna Nicole Smith: Nonagenarians Prefer Blondes
Linda Sobek: Lost in the Desert
Steven Spielberg: Close Encounters of the Stalker Kind
Hunter Tylo: The Bold, the Beautiful, and the Babies
Leslie Van Houten: Charlie’s Girl, Model Prisoner
Catherine Zeta-Jones: A Schoolgirl Crush
The Art of the Courtroom Sketch
Of the thousands of trials going on every day throughout the country, only a select few grab and hold the attention of the nation for days or weeks on end, and those are, by and large, trials that feature a celebrity. Even stories of the rich and powerful in New York can’t compare with those of a sitcom star in L.A.. If celebrities are America’s royal family, then L.A. is London, and Hollywood is Buckingham Palace. Which would make me a royal court artist, I suppose. As a courtroom sketch artist in Los Angeles, I’ve drawn some of the most famous faces of the past few decades, capturing many of them at their most vulnerable moments.
About 25 years ago, while working mainly as a fashion illustrator, sketching for department store catalogues and newspaper advertisements, I began studying courtroom illustrations on television. They struck me as stiff, amateurish-no flair, no pizzazz, nothing that would make me believe the people involved in the case were real. Fashion emphasizes speed, knowledge of anatomy and movement, and most importantly, style-that special quality that makes a viewer look twice. I convinced the art director at an L.A. news station to let me prove my worth, and in no time I turned my markers away from the fashion police and towards the L.A.P.D..
My first case was Marvin v. Marvin in 1979. In a nutshell, Michelle Triola sued her former live-in lover because he had said he would care for her for the rest of her life. The case became a landmark one-it established that cohabitating lovers can sue on pillow-talk promises if all aspects of an oral contract are established and fulfilled (i.e., palimony law).
Not necessarily exciting stuff in and or itself. But add in that the “Marvin” in question was Lee Marvin, star of The Dirty Dozen, The Big Heat, and dozens of other films, and you have a media frenzy.
My life changed as a result of that case, and it hasn’t been the same since. For nearly 25 years, my daily life has had no predictability. I keep a suitcase full of clothes and art supplies in the trunk of my car so that I can be at an arraignment at a moment’s notice. Usually, my calls arrive early in the morning, when news stations schedule time slots for the evening newscasts. I might drive two hours to witness a five-minute hearing, or drive ten minutes to cover a trial that lasts months. Most often, I illustrate the defendant’s first arraignment or appearance, opening statements, closing arguments, and the verdict. Only trials with a “marketable angle” warrant full-time coverage, and usually the media decides what’s marketable. (Sometimes a case catches my eye and I convince my assignment editor that it’ll hit big. When a man threw his young, rich wife overboard from his powerboat, the case drew little media attention, but I begged to cover it. In the end, the public embraced it for all its sex, power, infidelity, and money. You’ll find the details in People v. Eric Bechler.)
Depending on the trial, I draw anywhere from two to seven or eight sketches in a day. During the latest Michael Jackson trial, for instance, every network in the country had constant feeds going, so during each break the stations wanted something new. I did my best to keep up with them, sometimes churning out six or seven sketches in a day. My hand cramps occasionally, but usually it’s more from tension than overwork. If I know I’m losing my model in just a moment and my sketch isn’t finished, I white-knuckle the pen until my fingers cramp.
At the moment, only one other courtroom illustrator is my friendly competitor in L.A., and we often work as complements to each other. We compare sketches, cover for each other when one can’t be in court, and take turns when only one artist is allowed in the room. We both love our work, and we both pray for the “no cameras permitted” rule from the judge.
I sit in the front if I can; occasionally I move around to get the best angle, or if there’s no jury and the judge allows it, I may sit in the jury box. Sometimes the judge assigns us seats; for Michael Jackson, O.J., and the Menendez brothers-all media circuses, for instance-we had assigned seats (usually with a bad view). I carry about 50 markers and pens-and generally use about 5-and a pad of 9″ x 12″ vellum paper attached to a white board as my easel. I often manipulate the ink from the oil-based markers with my finger to add dimension, and try to draw both from photographic memory and with speed. I never erase; I use a blade to scrape off marker (that is, when the bailiff allows me to bring a blade into the courtroom) and I’ve gotten more than a few quizzical looks from people who wonder what the scratching noise is. I only use a certain kind of pen, and I buy them by the dozens at a time. When I find a brand name I like, I depend upon it, and if someone goes out of business, I panic, so I tend to buy my supplies in bulk.
My best sketches are my fastest, the ones in which I capture a brief, emotionally intense moment and lay it down in minutes. I never know how much time I’ll have, so I have to get the image on paper as quickly as possible; three minutes is usually my goal. I tend to overwork the sketch if I have too much time, and I prefer the lighter, fresher look of spontaneous sketches-it’s kind of the California style. New York artists have a heavier look-they’re the oil paintings to our watercolors. Maybe it’s the weather. Neither is the “correct” way, of course. For me, the longer I spend on filling in a sketch, the more I dislike it-my first impression, both to my eyes and to the page, is usually the best.
I never use a pencil, and I never make a loose sketch. I usually have the sketch finished in my mind’s eye before I even put the pen to paper. I start with an eyebrow, or where the eye meets the bridge of the nose, and build out from there. I try to capture body language, the hairline, a particular expression; hands are one of my greatest inspirations, because they’re so indicative of mood. Hands around the face, clasped beneath the chin, praying-they all contribute to the character of the piece.
Avoiding “caricature” is one of the hardest parts of my job, especially when I’m drawing famous faces. It’s not always easy to keep from exaggerating the likes of Michael Jackson. And I always have to remind myself to draw the person in the room, not the one on the screen. I know what Farrah Fawcett looks like before I even see her, but I have to be sure to do an interpretation of her in the moment. Years of experience have taught me to sense those impending moments-when Robert Blake falls over, ill; when O.J. Simpson demonstrates “rasslin” with Nicole with clenched fists . . . these are the times when my pen’s practically quivering in my hand.
Once I finish my sketch, the media “buys” the right to photograph it-that’s how I earn my living. During the short breaks in the cases, I tape my translucent vellum sketch to a white board, run downstairs to a camera truck, and fasten the sketch to the nearest vertical item, whether it’s a car or a tree. The camera people shoot the picture, usually panning from side-to-side to give the illusion of movement (I make a point of placing my sketches off-center to help them out), and then I zip back upstairs to catch the next chapter. Not surprisingly, we also sell our work to attorneys, who spend willingly, as courtroom sketches are a common gift for some lawyers. L.A. attorney Mark Geragos-defender of Winona Ryder and Michael Jackson (until Jackson replaced him one week before his arraignment)-told me he calls his collection of sketches his “ego wall.” Once, a drug lord asked me to sell him a sketch. I declined.
Objectivity is always a goal of any documentarian, but I can tell you this now: no documentarian can be 100% objective. After all, we’re not automatons. I try to avoid interpreting the trial, but I often play up a specific moment that seems relevant-for instance, during the Rodney King case, I drew one of the defendants praying with his wife before the trial, an extremely emotional moment. My own emotions also occasionally come through on the paper, in the background colors I use, in the boldness of the strokes. Sometimes people realize they’re being drawn and they duck their heads, hold up papers, do anything to avoid my line of sight. No one wants to be drawn in their moments of greatest vulnerability, and some moments-for instance, verdicts, when I am focused on the reaction of the family and the defendant-are especially difficult.
Of course, sometimes the attention of a courtroom artist is exactly what someone wants. Some people become more theatrical when they’re being watched. Attorneys often ask me to make them look a bit thinner, or give them more hair; after all, image is everything, especially in this town. By the time the jury exits the room for the last time, I can arrange my drawings in order and follow the tale of the trial, from arraignment to verdict.
Seeing these cases week after week has jaded me somewhat, no doubt. My mother swears I’ve become more hardened, but the bottom line is, I just see things most people don’t ever witness. I’ll be driving down the freeway and an image-from that week, or years earlier-will jump into my head and then sit in my soul for weeks before I can let go of it. Seeing the cases has also softened me a bit, too. We’re all flawed humans who have unsavory impulses from time to time. In the end, though, all my sympathy for a defendant won’t change the fact that he or she is guilty. And in my opinion, some people can be just plain evil.
My job does bleed over into my personal life. I have never been on jury duty, and I doubt I’d be selected. I know nearly every judge, D.A. and bailiff in the county, after all. Last year, my husband and I saw burglars leaving our neighbor’s house and wrote down their license plate; we may be asked to testify in court, and I wonder if I’ll be expected to draw myself. And, naturally, I’m always hoping I never draw anyone I know. (It’s a common joke between me and my friends: Don’t let me sketch you, please!)
At the end of the day, I love my job; I believe my colleagues and I are the keepers of an important, though dying, art. While I can remain unobtrusive and disappear, every person in a courtroom is aware of a news camera. I’ve seen attorneys exaggerate their “performances” for the camera, and judges and witnesses inevitably look self-conscious when faced with the glass eye. What I find to be most valuable about drawings, though, is the humanity they convey. Drawn by a human hand, perceived through a human eye, they bring an emotional reality to a captured moment-a reality that can be lost in the starkness of a video camera.
Courtroom illustration is a unique, irreplaceable art form, used to seize a moment in criminal history. Any courtroom can be a fascinating place, but my courtroom is located in the heart of the glamorous, scandalous City of Angels, which, for me anyway, makes my work that much more compelling. Join me now on a journey through the surreal world of the famous, the infamous, the notorious-the celebrity crime.