The Library of Congress announced the acquisition of 269 courtroom sketches of the Rodney King trials, landmark legal proceedings in the history of police brutality and racial bias in the US, held in Los Angeles between 1992 and 1994. Drawn by Mary Chaney, a prominent courtroom artist who also documented the OJ Simpson trial, the works are the first courtroom sketches by a California-based woman artist to enter the Library of Congress’s collection.
This month marks 30 years since Rodney King, an unarmed Black motorist, was brutally beaten by four Los Angeles police officers, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Stacey Koon, and Ted Briseno. After a high-speed chase, the officers stopped King under suspicions that he was driving under the influence. They then beat King brutally while other cops stood by, leaving him with broken bones and teeth as well as skull fractures and permanent brain damage. A bystander, George Holliday, taped the horrific beating on his camcorder, making what many consider to be the first viral witness video of police brutality.
The officers, three of whom were white, were acquitted of charges of excessive force the following year. The verdict catalyzed five days of uprisings in Los Angeles, during which over 50 people died and nearly 6,000 people were arrested. When the case went on to be tried in federal court in 1993, two of the four officers involved were found guilty and sentenced to prison time; all four were removed from the police force. Chaney sketched both trials, as well as the subsequent civil trial in 1994, in which King won $3.8 million in punitive damages from the City of Los Angeles.
Chaney, who started out as a commercial illustrator, spent more than 15 years as a freelance courtroom artist making sketches for major news networks including ABC, NBC, and CNN, as well as print publications such as the Los Angeles Times. After Chaney died of cancer in 2005, her daughter Lark Ireland Snouffer catalogued her work, sifting through nearly 2,000 drawings. Snouffer reached out to the Library of Congress in 2018. Two years later, the library agreed to purchase 129 sketches from the Rodney King trials, and Chaney’s estate donated the remaining 140 on the topic.
In a statement released by the Library of Congress, Snouffer expressed that her mother had “quite a passion for civil rights.”
“When the [Rodney King] beating occurred… so many people were horrified about it, as she was,” Snouffer continued. In conversation with the Los Angeles Times, Chaney’s daughter Annie Wren Cook added that her mother “had a strong sense of fairness and justice” and was heartbroken during the trials. “The fact that the policemen who were involved in the beating were paid public servants and this is what they did, outraged her,” Cook said.
Sara Duke, the library’s curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art, emphasized the importance of acquiring Chaney’s sketches of the historic trials, which will be made accessible to the public.
“As a curator, I seek courtroom drawings that are a touchpoint in American history,” Duke said in a statement. “The sketches from the federal trial against the police officers for violating Rodney King’s civil rights and his civil lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles stand out as the type the Library should be collecting and making available to researchers.”
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