O.J., Martha, Jagger, and Manson: Capturing Celebrities in the Dock

From Charles Manson to O.J, Michael Jackson to the Son of Sam, the drawings of courtroom artists capture the most dramatic, and sometimes the most moving and fleeting, images of the biggest trials of modern times.

Courtesy CUNY Journalism Press

In 1970, Charles Manson was tried in a Los Angeles courtroom for the murder of actress Sharon Tate, then eight months pregnant, and six other women. With no photographers allowed, the public relied on the words of reporters, describing the gruesome details and decisions held within the sanctified walls. For the really theatrical moments, however, the action was conveyed in illustrations by a group of courtroom artists capturing the drama the world may have never seen.

Such was the case when illustrator Bill Robles witnessed Manson leaping over the defense table, lunging—pencil in hand—at presiding Judge Charles H. Older in the hopes of stabbing him. The image, with all of its sketchy lines and minimal color palette, had to be rendered in a matter of seconds. Yet, the details are all there—the determined face of the guard as he tackles Manson, whose pencil flies forward, and the judge calmly looking on with confidence of his safety.

This image, one of court art’s most iconic, has also become the cover for a new book, The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art, mapping recent history’s most iconic court cases with a series of illustrations and firsthand accounts by the artists.

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To co-author Elizabeth Williams, the compilation of artworks and personal stories serve as a historical capsule. “If I didn’t do this book, it would all be lost,” she told The Daily Beast. From Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson to Charles Manson, the Son of Sam and O.J. Simpson, not only does the book recount history with its never before seen artworks, it also preserves a profession that is slowly becoming obsolete.

“There are far fewer [courtroom] artists than there were in the ’80s. There are just a handful of us in New York, and I believe two people out in Los Angeles. Courtroom illustration is on the wane and this really captures the great years of it.”

The book centers around five major players—Robles, Howard Brodie, Aggie Kenny, Richard Tomilson and, of course, Williams. Collectively, their award-winning works span courtroom cases from celebrity drama and political scandal to terrorists and serial killers, oftentimes putting them mere feet from the world’s most dangerous men.

When Aggie Kenny and Richard Tomlinson were covering the 1977 trial of serial killer David Berkowitz, the self-proclaimed “Son of Sam,” it wasn’t the most traditional of settings. At the time, 24-year-old Berkowitz, who had murdered or wounded a total of 13 people around New York City, was being held under intense lockdown in the psychiatric ward at the Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. Instead of moving him to a courtroom, the courtroom came to him, and a recreational room within the ward was converted for the judge and jury.

“The press was locked in with him,” Tomilson is quoted in the book. “But as close as I was I never spoke to him. No reporter did. In a situation like that, you just keep your mouth shut and draw.” While both artists witnessed Berkowitz’s transition from “‘becalmed state in the hospital’ to ‘manic antics’ in court,” the images captured by Kenny and Tomilson depict two different perceptions of the killer through their vastly different styles.

According to Williams, Kenny, who worked in watercolor, was more “composition-focused” and “focused on his features,” which she found “cherubic yet crazy.” On the other hand, Tomilson’s “approach was more aggressive, digging into the paper with a charcoal pencil,” reflecting “Berkowitz’s demeanor and energy…wild”

As with most artists, their styles are distinctly different. Collectively, they span almost every technique and medium—from color pencil and markers to oil sticks and watercolor.

Williams works primarily in oil paint sticks and colored pencils. She began illustrating court cases for extra money while studying fashion illustration in Southern California. The side job eventually became a career, but her education is still reflected in her techniques. “As a fashion artist,” Williams recounts, “my favorite trial was the [John] DeLorean trial because [his wife] Christina [Ferrare] came to court every day in a new outfit. She was my favorite model. It was like going to fashion class and getting paid for it.”

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DeLorean, the automobile executive behind the namesake time-traveling car depicted in the ’80s film Back to the Future, was arraigned on drug conspiracy charges when he was caught on film mid-deal. The 22-week trial was significant to Williams, who was still a fresh face in courtrooms. “Drawing the same subjects over and over again, I really got to know the characters,” Williams explained. “It really helped develop my style and technique.”

Williams’s depictions of the trial are heavily focused on the reactions of Christina—her consoling John at the defendant’s table, silently watching alongside her mother and friends, and on stand watching the footage of her husband in the drug deal.

“Seeing Christina watching her husband in that powerful videotape when the jury viewed it was an obviously newsworthy scene,” Williams is quoted in the caption of the photo. Courtroom artists, most always separated from their reporter partners, are oftentimes responsible for making snap decisions on depicting an image that represents where the collective story needs to go. “You want your story to stand out,” Williams told me. “Anytime you can give them something unique, anytime you can give them something a little bit different, that’s where to go.”

Such was the case with 28-year-old Russian Foreign Intelligence agent Anna Chapman when she was arraigned with nine others in 2010. Williams knew immediately that Chapman, sporting Bond-girl looks with perfectly styled flame-red hair and flawless facial features, was “the story.” Lucky for the artist, Chapman continued to turn around to survey the room. This allowed a fleeting moment for Williams to capture an image of Chapman that would quickly go viral and become the “Most Recommended News Image” on Yahoo! News—a rarity for courtroom artists.

While courtroom art can be dated back to the Salem witch trials, the rise in television news propelled the necessity for courtroom artists. In 1964, Williams says, news went from 15-minute segments to a half-hour program, marking the advent of network news as we know it today and an increased production of courtroom art. It also marked the trial of Jack Ruby, the man who shot President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Veteran illustrator Howard Brodie was on the case, pioneering the rising art form. Known for his drawings of Kennedy and Richard Nixon for covers of Newsweek during their 1960 presidential campaigns, his sketchy, but detailed, drawings capture a variety of emotions and personalities. Rendering everyone from witnesses to jurors and the flamboyant defensive lawyer Melvin Belli, Brodie captured it all, including seven escapees as they stormed through the trial on their exit and the most subtle detail of Ruby’s quivering Adam’s apple.

With a multitude of cases and hundreds upon hundreds of images, the biggest task for Williams was deciding on the ones that mattered most. “We tried to figure out the images that were really going to resonate, that really have a place in our history.” From that, 50 years of courtroom art was compiled, according readers a vivid historical timeline, with an abundance of personal anecdotes to furnish the dramatic images.

The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art is published through CUNY Journalism Press and available for purchase here. A selection of images will be on display at Mason Civic League in Hoboken, NJ begining June 5.