Trial by Hire

Courtroom sketch artists give a unique glimpse of our most infamous criminals

To get the drop on John Gotti, the "Teflon Don," Marilyn Church had to move like a mongoose.

The New Yorker is among an exclusive cadre of talent hired as quick-draw artists by the national media to capture the drama of high-profile trials.

Because cameras are banned from federal trials, courtroom sketch art is the only visual evidence of the proceedings in many major legal cases. It is often in hot demand.

Miami River Cops (1985)
Shirley Henderson
Miami River Cops (1985)
Manuel Noriega (1992)
Shirley Henderson
Manuel Noriega (1992)

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Shirley Henderson's work is permanently on view at the Reba Engler Daner Wing of the University of Miami's law library. Marilyn Church's newest book is The Art of Justice: An Eyewitness View of Thirty Infamous Trials. Vicki Behringer's images of the Enron, Scott Peterson, Unabomber, and Michael Jackson trials can be seen at www.courtroomartist.com.

Church also drew mobsters Carmine "The Snake" Persico, Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, and Matty "The Horse" Ianello, a capo in the Genovese crime family. "I've covered all the major mob trials," Church says.

Many of these artists' works might appear garish in nature, because they are executed lightning-fast. But they do provide history's first fly-on-the-wall perspective of the cases that become part of American cultural lore.

Church — along with Sacramento's Vicki Behringer and Miami's Shirley Henderson — has covered many of America's high-wattage courtroom spectacles during the past three decades.

The artists typically work under adverse conditions and with tight deadlines, and look for features that stand out when rendering defendants, lawyers, judges, or witnesses during a trial.

"Sometimes all I have is a minute to sketch a subject during an arraignment," Church says. "You look at someone, then look away, and what one remembers are the exaggerated features, their expressions. Body language and emotions are very important."

She says an attorney defending the suspects tried for 1993's World Trade Center bombing asked her not to make the subjects look like terrorists. "They were defiantly yelling and disrupting the proceedings and looked absolutely ferocious, and I felt fear. One feels like they are in the line of fire. I factored that into the portraits," Church explains.

Her recently published The Art of Justice: An Eyewitness View of Thirty Infamous Trials features striking full-color Caran d'Ache pastel sketches of the trials of the Son of Sam, Amy Fisher, Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley, Woody Allen, Martha Stewart, and John Gotti, among others.

It wasn't the gangster's silver mane or snazzy Brioni duds that caught Church's eye. "What stood out about Gotti were his piggish features — his fat neck and bulbous nose," she recalls. "I have to draw fast when working with a reporter or a TV station. The turnaround time is so quick you have to have a photographic memory for the details." Woody Allen's "hangdog face and glasses" and Martha Stewart's "piercing beady eyes and disheveled hair" are characteristics Church says she remembers about both celebrities that made them easier to draw.

Shirley Henderson's vibrant pastel-on-paper courtroom sketches date back to 1980 and range in subject from violent murder to political intrigue, white-collar crime, terrorism, police brutality, judicial corruption, drug trafficking, and racketeering. They offer a fetid whiff of Miami's dank underside.

During the recent arraignment of seven Miami men accused of a plot to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago, Henderson depicted the alleged ringleader, Narseal Batiste, standing next to an American flag and wearing a jailhouse jumpsuit as he addressed the judge.

"There is a lot of pressure on us to get the job done fast during a first appearance," she describes. "Fox, CNN, they all want the first shot out of the box. With seven defendants and the proceedings moving so rapidly, I went for Batiste's bald head," Henderson says of her drawing of the onion-domed terror suspect, which appeared in the July 3 issue of Newsweek.

The artist calls the Elián González custody dispute and 2000's historic presidential election challenge between Al Gore and then-Gov. George W. Bush highlights of her career.

She has drawn portraits of serial killer Ted Bundy, cult leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh, Colombian drug lords Carlos Lehder and Fabio Ochoa, and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Much of her work has been exhibited throughout South Florida during the past 25 years in shows that often serve as primers on local history.

Henderson's stunning work is permanently on view at the Reba Engler Daner Wing of the University of Miami's law library. The collection exudes a vivid, theatrical style and includes a pair of drawings of Rep. Alcee Hastings, one as a lawyer and another as a defendant, in separate trials.

Congressman Hastings is one of her favorite subjects. "I consider Alcee a friend. He's tremendously charismatic. I have drawn him with and without hair," Henderson says with a laugh.

She recalls that while she was drawing Ben Yahweh, who was on trial for racketeering and murder, the cult leader glared at her with a look of sheer hatred. "It was as if a mask were pulled back and he revealed another face that was full of brutality and animalism."

Hastings, who was Ben Yahweh's defense attorney, came to the artist's side to console her. "Ben Yahweh leaned in his chair, almost appearing evil. Alcee came over and threw an arm around me and looked back at his client, who must have realized at the time that I was drawing him for the media and changed his demeanor."

Mr. Woo, Henderson's cat, later pissed all over the portrait of Ben Yahweh as it lay in her living room. She relates the memory with a smile.

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