The recent headline-grabbing case about the NYC “Cannibal Cop” caught my eye for more than just the obvious reasons. While reading an online article about the case, I was almost moved to a feeling of sympathy for the defendant based on a courtroom sketch. In the sketch, Gilberto Valle is portrayed with his eyes shut and forehead resting fatalistically on his hand as his wife testifies against him. [Credit http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-21706648. I've been told that the artist is Jane Rosenberg. Courtroom artists don't seem to get much glory!] Disregarding the gory subject matter, the sketch is stunning: it captures the essence of a man who knows his goose is cooked.
The sketch got me thinking, though – why, in this day and age where everyone has a camera on their cell phone, would anyone bother with the laborious process of drawing a moment of the proceedings?
Most of the time courtroom sketches are done in the U.S. when, for whatever reason, cameras are not allowed in the courtroom. Federal courts are particularly restrictive in this area. The U.S. Supreme Court is the best example of a forum where cameras are banned, making sketches the only source of visuals for proceedings.
Supreme Court proceedings also seem to yield the most interesting sketches. I came across the website www.courtartist.com, featuring the works of artist Arthur Lien, where you can find expressive, full-color portrayals of proceedings in the Supreme Court as well as various courts of appeal. You can purchase sketches from famous trials such as Bush v. Gore and even the recent Prop. 8 arguments. Out of respect for his copyrights and the fact he’s trying to make a living off this work, I won’t post anything here, but you should check them out.
One of my favorite sketches, though, comes from back in a day when sketching was the only way to portray what was happening in the courtroom. This sketch was from a witchcraft trial in 1876. The scene looks more like a religious revival than what we see in court today (which in some ways, I guess it was!).
Given the varying quality of the courtroom sketches I’ve seen, I’m not sure I ever want to be portrayed in one, but I hope the art isn’t rendered obsolete by technology. There’s definitely a timeless quality to the sketches that somehow elevates the proceedings they’re portraying.
Edit on May 28, 2013: The Salem witch trial isn’t really a sketch – it’s likely a woodblock print, done at least a hundred years after the fact. Still think it’s great!