Trial by Hire

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

Henderson, who in the courtroom wears custom-made binoculars that free her hands for sketching, also pays particular attention to facial expressions and body language, nailing down details such as wrinkles and the slightest hand gestures.

While Henderson was covering Bundy's appeal hearings in Tampa, the notorious serial killer sat motionless and his face appeared pasty with what she calls a prison pallor. "Suddenly he raised his forehead and he showed this horrendous face that looked as wrinkled as a chow dog's. The hair on my neck absolutely stood up."

She also covered his execution while watching a live video feed in the back of a truck outside Florida's death row in Starke. "That was a repulsive experience and one I never wish to repeat. People outside the van were cheering as Bundy was strapped into the electric chair and were wearing frying pans on their heads and opening bottles of champagne."

Elián González (2000)
Shirley Henderson
Elián González (2000)
Jack Abramoff (2005)
Shirley Henderson
Jack Abramoff (2005)

Details

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.

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Church agrees that drawing portraits of nut-bag murderers, even with plenty of police in the room, can be an unnerving ordeal. While covering a sanity hearing for David Berkowitz, New York's infamous Son of Sam .44-caliber killer, she found herself almost shoulder-to-shoulder with the sociopath. "It was right after his capture, and the hearing was held in a makeshift courtroom in a hospital room with no seats. I was about two feet away from him, and he had these really spooky eyes. I almost lost it when it struck me that I looked like many of his victims. I had long dark hair at the time," Church recalls. Her drawing of Berkowitz ended up on the cover of the New York Times the next day.

Sacramento-based Vicki Behringer had an equally chilling experience with the Yosemite Killer, Cary Stayner. The hotel handyman who murdered four women looked like the average Joe. "The creepiest part is that most of these violent killers don't look like they are crazy or threatening. If you bumped into them on an elevator or on the street, you'd swear they were normal," she says.

On the other hand, pop star Michael Jackson and the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, would stand out in a crowd because of how weird they look or behave, says Behringer.

Even though his attorneys dressed him in a tweedy suit, hoping to pawn him off as a college professor type, when Kaczynski opened his mouth, he came across like he wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier, she says. "He was brought out with his beard neatly trimmed and had a very interesting face to draw, but when he spoke, people were surprised he was a lot more delusional than they originally thought."

In one of her portraits of the Unabomber, Behringer rendered him with a red slash across his gullet after he tried to hang himself in his cell with his underwear. "The red mark on his neck really stood out, and I included it in the picture," she says. "The one thing that struck me most about him was that he never showed remorse for his actions. It was obvious to everyone he was disturbed."

She calls Michael Jackson "absolutely amazing" but says the accused child molester looked like an albino, wore a different flamboyant outfit to court each day, favored purple socks with his leather sandals, and spent most of his time sucking on hard candy. "He was very sweet and seemed somewhat terrified — not like a superstar at all. People may think he's trying to be Caucasian, but he's not. He is whiter than white and almost chalky with very red lips," she says.

Behringer — who works with pen, ink, and watercolor and, like her colleagues, averages between three to five sketches during a full court session — will often split her production of images into one or two portraits of a defendant and the rest panoramic courtroom scenes.

The going rate for their courtroom work ranges from $350 to $500 a day in major media markets, but many of the drawings are sold in art galleries or on the Internet for thousands of dollars, depending on the historical impact of the trials.

"The whole field has changed," Church explains. "Established artists don't want to do it anymore."

Henderson agrees that what she does has become specialized and that she might be among a dying breed. The hard-bitten chronicler of South Florida's legal imbroglios likens her challenging courtroom artistry to "drawing the cast of Ben-Hur in five minutes or less from behind."

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