Why Do We Still Need Courtroom Artists?

Molly Gottschalk
Sep 19, 2017 8:42PM

Illustration of Charles Manson leaping at Judge Older by Bill Robles.

In the past few decades, courtroom artists have sketched an enraged, pencil-wielding Charles Manson diving across the aisles, aiming for the judge; Tupac Shakur taking the stand with a fresh set of bullet wounds; and handcuffs locked around Lindsay Lohan’s wrists as she waltzes into custody wearing Louboutins.

Since the Salem witch trials of 1692, over a century before the first photograph was snapped, artists have swiftly rendered sensitive and high-profile proceedings for an eagerly awaiting public. But why, over 300 years later—and in an age where everyone carries a camera in their pocket—do old-fashioned drawings remain the main way we document memorable moments in court?

“One would think in the 21st century, with very sophisticated cameras, that people would want the camera, and it’s just the opposite,” says Mona Shafer Edwards, a fashion illustrator-turned-courtroom artist who, since 1978, has been especially beloved for her depictions of women in the courtroom—from Lohan to a guitar-playing Dolly Parton. “Every year I would think, ‘Okay, this is the year I’m finished,’ and it keeps going.”

Illustration of Lindsay Lohan by Mona Shafer Edwards.

Illustration of Dolly Parton by Mona Shafer Edwards.


Courtroom drawing as we know it in the United States was born in response to the 1935 media circus over the kidnapping and killing of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. After newsreel cameras, noisy shutters, tripods, and bright flashing lights overtook the court, the American Bar Association put forth a ban on cameras—leaving news outlets to seek alternate means of coverage.

“The media needs a visual,” says Emmy-nominated courtroom artist Bill Robles, responsible for the aforementioned drawing of a pencil-wielding Manson plunging across court, which he made in 1970 during the first trial he ever covered. “When cameras are not allowed, you’re the king.”

However, in step with developing technologies and growing public interest in criminal trials, some U.S. courts relaxed their camera restrictions. The mid-1970s saw some states permitting cameras in limited use, and by the early ’90s, even some federal courts experimented with bringing them back.

The turning point came with the so-called trial of the century: the O. J. Simpson murder case in 1994. Following the request for transparency by both the defense and prosecution, presiding judge Lance A. Ito boldly allowed a single television camera into his court.

Illustration of O. J. Simpson in his civil trial by Mona Shafer Edwards.

Illustration of detective Tom Lang Testifying in the O. J. Simpson civil trial by Bill Robles.

“Everybody thought that was the swan song,” says Edwards, who worked the former football star’s criminal murder case in rotation with a handful of other artists. “We all saw the writing on the wall; Judge Ito let cameras back in, and we all thought that was it.”

But Ito’s decision totally backfired. As Edwards recalls, witnesses underwent complete makeovers between the preliminary hearings and the actual trial, with housekeepers entering the courts “completely done up”; lawyers started positioning their lecterns for optimal camera angles. “It was a circus.”

After that experience, judges were significantly weary of an O. J. redux. While cameras are always banned from federal courts, at this time they were allowed in the courtrooms of 47 states at the discretion of the judge—and judges weren’t having it.

For both Edwards and Robles, this meant landing a front row seat as courtroom artists for the Michael Jackson trial of 2005, in which the King of Pop was accused of molestation (and found innocent). “We had the best seat in the place,” says Robles. In this case, the media frenzy took place outside. As press photographers, Jackson impersonators, street performers, and even popcorn vendors swarmed the perimeter, the artists delivered hand-drawn updates of the action behind closed doors.

Illustration of Michael Jackson by Mona Shafer Edwards.

Illustration of Halle Berry by Mona Shafer Edwards.

“An artist is surely not a camera, but by the same token an artist can do what the camera cannot do,” says Robles. Indeed, legalities aside, courtroom artists have a practical advantage in that they can draw around an object, like a column that’s blocking a subject, or slightly tighten a composition, he says.

And perhaps most significantly, they possess an untouchable ability to edit and distill the day’s drama and emotion into a single frame. “You synthesize a lot of different things going on that can’t possibly be in a photograph,” says painter and courtroom artist Marilyn Church, recalling Tupac Shakur’s sexual assault trial of 1994. “The camera flashes what happened that second, whereas with an artist, it’s more [about] Tupac’s attitude.”

In 2017, courtroom sketches are still winning out over photographic documentation (which is allowed, to varying degrees, in all 50 states). Last year, Edwards and Robles were both enlisted to illustrate Led Zeppelin as the band contested a copyright infringement accusation (and won). The courtroom was so averse to cameras that the judge initially confiscated all pens—even the artists’—for fear of tiny hidden cameras. (He eventually backtracked on this decision.) And this year, both artists have begun documenting pre-trial proceedings for the high-profile murder trial against New York real estate heir Robert Durst. “It’s a state court, where they permit cameras—but the judge said no,” says Robles.

Illustration of Charles Manson holding up a newspaper to the jury by Bill Robles.

Illustration of Michael Jackson during a recess by Bill Robles.

Courtroom artists are also getting due recognition as artists. This March, an exhibition of 98 drawings at The Library of Congress, which runs through December 30th, prompted thoughtful examinations on the history of this storied art form.  

And the internet has continued to delight (and argue) over high-profile courtroom art. In 2015, people went berserk over a supposedly unflattering likeness of New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady, with courtroom artist Jane Rosenberg’s colored pencil drawings from the federal case against the NFL inciting memes and parodies across social media.

Similarly, in August, the Associated Press hired local Colorado illustrator Jeff Kandyba to cover the buzzy Taylor Swift trial—he says that two-thirds of the courtroom were filled with the singer’s fans. His work received much attention when self-declared Swifties called out a depiction of their leader looking angry. “I honestly didn’t really anticipate the fans. I’ve done some pretty high profile cases, but the people involved were criminals,” he says.

Illustration of Taylor Swift by Jeff Kandyba.

In June of this year, when the White House began shutting down camera access into press briefings (customary for the past 25 years) the work of courtroom artists again found renewed urgency. CNN commissioned Washington-based sketch artist Bill Hennessy to depict a briefing by then-press secretary Sean Spicer. Without camera, video, or live audio broadcast in the room, it provided a critical perspective from behind closed doors.

Courtroom artists are happy with their continued employment, of course, even if some admit that there may be benefits to documenting trials in other ways. “I am amazed that cameras have been kept out for such a long time,” says Church. “I think the public benefits by hearing what goes on in a courtroom and not just a summary that they get later, but it certainly has served me well.”

She’s not alone in questioning whether cameras might make more sense than pencils in the courtroom. Almost three decades after the O. J. Simpson trial, senator Amy Klobuchar and senate judiciary committee chairman Chuck Grassley are pushing for greater transparency with a new bipartisan bill that could bring cameras back into federal courts (though still at the judges’ discretion). Church, for one, isn’t worried. “Those discussions go on every five years, and somehow they always get turned down.”

“You know what’s fascinating is in this day of electronics, they’re still dependent on me, with my drawing pad and my pen and colored markers,” says Robles. And though he admits regretfully that the price of his sketchpad has climbed from $15 to $27, that just might be the only thing that’s going to change.

Molly Gottschalk