'The Illustrated Courtroom' Finds Art In Real-Life Legal Drama For some trials, courtroom sketches are the only images the public ever sees. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with artist Elizabeth Williams about her new book, which looks at 50 years of such drawings.

'The Illustrated Courtroom' Finds Art In Real-Life Legal Drama

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You've seen them in legal dramas, sitting in a corner of the courtroom sketching. They are the courtroom artists. Some of their images have become iconic - think O.J. Simpson and Bernie Madoff. And sometimes when TV cameras aren't allowed in, theirs are the only visuals from the courtroom at all. But rarely is the artwork of the courtroom illustrator considered just that, artwork. A new book attempts to change that perception. The author is Elizabeth Williams, herself a courtroom artist whose work has appeared in many newspapers. She told my colleague Rachel Martin that she first realized being a courtroom artist could be a career possibility when she attended an exhibition of courtroom sketches.

ELIZABETH WILLIAMS: I went to a show of courtroom art in San Diego when I saw the work of Bill Robles. And I was so floored by his artwork, I just said, well, if that's what courtroom art can be well, then I would love to do that. Except I thought - it seemed just to look so easy the way he did it. It looked so easy. It was very difficult.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Can you tell me about that learning curve? What was the transition like? What is hard about this work?

WILLIAMS: Well, what was hard was that you're working under such pressure in such a deadline that if you mess up and you don't deliver the shot, you know, you may not get called the next time. So you're really on a tight rope.

MARTIN: Why don't you explain to us - for those who don't exactly understand - how are the pictures used?

WILLIAMS: Well, if you're working for television you will do several images for your reporter...

MARTIN: So you're not recording what's happening for some kind of official record. You're working as a photojournalist...

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...You're working in tandem with a reporter.

WILLIAMS: Right, we're journalists. We're - actually one of the very important things about doing this kind of work is that we are journalists first. It's kind of like the way reporters cover a story and you hear a quote. You want to double check with your colleague when this instance, for example, on the cover of the book when Manson lunged at the judge. That happened so quickly so, you know, Bill told me he got the general outline of it. And then the other artists got together, and they said now wait, where was the pencil and the flip-flop and - so we've got to make this so that we're all remembering this properly because we are journalists.

MARTIN: Let me just articulate the image on the front of this book because it is very dramatic. This is Charles Manson. And this is a moment - he actually lunges at the judge. And as you've mentioned Bill Robles...


MARTIN: ...Was the artist to capture that moment.

WILLIAMS: Correct.

MARTIN: Was this just a stand out for you? Obviously it - you wanted this to be on the cover.

WILLIAMS: I think so. We had a number of choices, there were about three of them, and they were all one, two and three in the book. But this one, this picture of Manson, is so dynamic and sort of encapsulates the ultimate experience a courtroom artist can have. You need to get the money shot. You need to deliver to your reporter what they want. For example, when the Times Square bomber was sentenced in New York City, he was standing there with his arms down. And I have devised a technique so I can change something in a second. And he starts - he puts his hand up, and he starts finger wagging at the judge, telling her about how blood is going to flow and, you know, making all of these statements. And I thought there, that's the image. And that was the image and that ended up being on the cover of the New York Times.

MARTIN: Do you have implements with you, writing implements?

WILLIAMS: Yes, I do. I do.

MARTIN: Do you have paper?

WILLIAMS: I have paper. I have paper, I have implements.

MARTIN: So can we put this to the test?


MARTIN: So if we pretend that I'm a defendant, or maybe I'm an attorney. I don't know if I want to be the defendant.

WILLIAMS: I don't think you want to be - how about being a witness?

MARTIN: A witness. I should be a witness.

WILLIAMS: Because you have a...

MARTIN: OK, I have a witnessy face? Oh, no, I have...


WILLIAMS: I'm getting there, and you're only giving me one shot.

MARTIN: I know, that's true.

WILLIAMS: So, you're only giving me one shot.

MARTIN: This is the money shot, Elizabeth.

WILLIAMS: This is the...

MARTIN: This is the big moment. I've just done something really important. You have to capture it.

WILLIAMS: You've interviewed me, you've interviewed me...

MARTIN: Exactly.

WILLIAMS: ...So that's the money shot.


MARTIN: Oh, look. That's me. Look, that's lovely.

WILLIAMS: Right, there you go.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Williams. She is a courtroom illustrator. She is the author of a new book called "The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years Of Court Art." She joined us here in our studios in Washington and rendered this lovely image. Elizabeth, thank you so much for coming in.

WILLIAMS: You are so welcome. It was a real pleasure.

NEARY: And you can see that sketch of Rachel by Elizabeth Williams on the Facebook page for NPR Weekend.

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