Camera use has gradually been allowed in state and federal courts since 1977. Although the role of the courtroom sketch has diminished, the practice endures, such as at the recent trials of Bill Cosby and Dylann Roof, during which photography by the media was not permitted. Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustration at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, DC, features 98 examples dating back to 1964. The exhibition considers how courtroom artists visualize the trial narratives for the public, and also process emotional moments and pivotal testimonies beyond simple documentation.
“They are not cartoonists nor caricaturists, and their ability to work depends on capturing not only a portrait of those involved, but the gestures they made, their facial expressions, the way they interacted with those around them,” Sara W. Duke, curator of applied and graphic art in the LOC Prints and Photographs Division and the exhibition’s organizer, told Hyperallergic.
Drawing Justice is accompanied by an extensive online exhibition, through which users can explore themes like race-based crimes, terrorism trials, celebrity trials, and political activists on trial. The exhibition follows last year’s acquisition of almost 100 courtroom sketches. LOC states that their collection of 10,000 courtroom drawings is now “the most comprehensive in any American institution.”
The earliest work in Drawing Justice is by Howard Brodie of the 1964 trial of Jack Ruby, who was found guilty of killing Lee Harvey Oswald while he was in custody for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Brodie’s drawings range from detailed views of the full courtroom, with annotation for everything from the positions of the defense attorneys to an available spittoon, to isolated scenes like Ruby gulping at the verdict, his nervous face sketched in crayon on a vast emptiness of white paper.
This skill of representing some aspect of the courtroom that would be impossible to convey through photography or film is present across the decades of the exhibition. Bill Robles in 1970 distilled the chaos when Charles Manson leapt at Justice Charles H. Older with a pencil, his blur of sketched motion a contrast to the stoic Older, and Pat Lopez in 1999 froze the moment when the chain used to murder Matthew Shepard was stretched out in the courtroom, its haunting presentation contained on the otherwise vacant paper in a violet cloud of color. A 1984 illustration by Marilyn Church included members of the courtroom wearing face masks, showing the existing prejudice and fear against a defendant with AIDs, and a 2015 illustration by Jane Rosenberg featured the charred remnants of defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s backpack, in which he carried a pressure cooker bomb to the 2013 Boston Marathon.
“While artistic styles vary, each artist brings the theater of the courtroom to life, capturing gestures, appearance, and relationships in a way that humanizes defendants, plaintiffs, lawyers, judges, and witnesses,” Duke explained.
In one 1984 self-portrait by Elizabeth Williams, even the courtroom artists are humanized. Her sketch shows Brodie with his opera glasses over his eyeglasses to better see the proceedings, alongside artists including Williams, Bill Robles, Bill Lignante, Walt Stewart, and David Rose, all with their paper pads and pile of pencils, crayons, and pens ready to swiftly document the trial of an automobile manufacturer on trial for cocaine possession with the intent to sell.
“Courtroom artists offer the American people, through the television news, newspapers and now the internet, access to the proceedings,” Duke said. “Whether it is a once-beloved celebrity or a reviled terrorist — Americans want access to the legal system. By acquiring, preserving, and making courtroom art accessible to researchers and the public, the Library’s courtroom illustration collection preserves an enduring record of American life and law.”
Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustration continues through October 28 at the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building (South Gallery, 10 First Street S.E., Washington, DC).