Rembrandts of the Courtroom

CourtArt Manson w Nixon Paper

Charles Manson Nearly Caused a Mistrial – by Bill Robles

Okay, 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.

Attorney William Kuntzler -by Richard Tomlinson

Attorney William Kuntzler -by Richard Tomlinson

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 art work 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 riveting text is from co-author Sue Russell.

Haldeman, Hinkley, Manson, Ruby - by Howard Brodie

Haldeman, Hinkley, Manson, Ruby – by Howard Brodie

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 half a century ago the artwork flows like the pages of a legal history book. Among the many other Brodie accomplishments: capturing the action at the Watergate cover-up trial, the Patty Hearst case and scores of others.

Son-of-Sam aka David Berkowitz (L) by Richard Tomlinson

Son-of-Sam aka David Berkowitz (L) by Richard Tomlinson

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, among many others.

“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 water-colored sketches are riveting. Among her included works are scenes from the trials of Iran-Contra defendants like John Poindexter and Oliver North.

Sidney Biddle Barrows on Trial - by Aggie Kenny

Sidney Biddle Barrows on Trial – by Aggie Kenny

“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 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.

Not Allowed to Identify OJ Jurors - Robles' Solution, Ok'd by Judge Ito

Not Allowed to Identify OJ Jurors – Robles’ Solution, Ok’d by Judge Ito

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 his first assignment, the 1970 murder case against Charles Manson and his followers, as if it were yesterday. Robles’ iconic drawing (seen above) 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 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, OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson and too many others to mention here.

Only Artist Williams Captured This Madoff Moment

Only Artist Williams Captured This Madoff Moment

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”) 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.




{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Dimond July 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm

ABQ Journal Reader Dorothy B. Julius writes:

“Hello Ms. Dimond — In our Albuquerque, NM Journal of Saturday, 7/12/14, in the Op-Ed section, I read your article about the above named book. I have tried via the internet to find a copy of this book with no success. Can you tell me where I might purchase this book? Thank you for your time.”


Diane Dimond July 14, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Yes! The book can be purchased by clicking this link:

Here is the Amazon link

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did! ~ DD


Diane Dimond July 14, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Creators Syndicate Reader Sweeney writes:

“Ma’am;…Your article should come with a nosegay…
Law is all form and formality, and is without relationship, and there is a reason it does not work for the average person, and Law really does not work… It is certainly a fine stick we can shake at each other… Our desire to injure each other keeps miriad attornies in wealth; but where is the good which should attend it???
I trust you like the law for the same reason people are facinated by gorey accidents…There are times and places where a step in this or that direction can tickle our emotions, of sympathy or revusion like finger on the funny bone…It is perfect; moving in sloooow motion so everyone can see what is happening, and it is a train wreck in progress…We can no longer rely on the law for justice, as without justice the law is only coercion… We need to be the law…”
Thanks… Sweeney


Diane Dimond July 14, 2014 at 4:18 pm

This was hardly an endorsement of the entire legal system, Sweeny. Rather, a glimpse inside a courtroom where a high profile trial takes place – as seen through the eyes of an artist. ~ DD


Diane Dimond July 14, 2014 at 4:48 pm

Twitter Pal Chrisahull writes:

“@DiDimond I bet those court room artists are as valuable in some cases as reporters sent in to cover these stories, think I’ll get this!!!”


Diane Dimond July 14, 2014 at 4:48 pm

I very seldom recommend a book – but this one is a keeper! Enjoy!~ DD


Sylvia L. Kurtz July 14, 2014 at 9:16 pm

Fascinating topic. Will order a copy. Thanks for the recommendation.

~ Sylvia


Diane Dimond July 15, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Reader Michael Schoen writes:

“Elizabeth is among a few talented artists who are able to quickly capture a courtroom scene — not only physically what is there — but the emotions that go into it. A very special talent.”


Diane Dimond July 15, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Facebook Friend Linda Kelly writes:

“You describe the court as a big vat of human soup. I agree. As I train nurses to become Forensic Nurse Examiners I describe the court experience as a live study of human sociology. Walking the corridors before court begins is an amazing experience!”


Diane Dimond July 15, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Facebook Friend Jeff Watson writes:

“Very nice article. My wife who’s a Circuit Court judge, Violent Felony 2, prefers no illustrator in her courtroom, and tries to keep our images out of the public realm, as there are at least 10 credible threats by associates and family member of the defendants every year. We’re basically on lockdown…….living at the beach, but still on lockdown 10 times a year.”


Diane Dimond July 15, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Facebook Friend Tori Richards writes:

“Yes, awesome book!”


CLS July 17, 2014 at 12:34 am

Interesting article! I have always wondered what goes through the minds of the court artists. I’m glad Elizabeth Williams has published this book, as I can now have a glimpse. I’m going to order a copy of it.


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