Trial by Hire
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.
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.
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."
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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