What It’s Like To Do Courtroom Sketching

A witness in the Gamboa meth trial, Fargo ND

Every once in a while I am hired by a local Minneapolis TV station to do courtroom sketches. Minnesota has a strict law forbidding cameras from all courtrooms so when big dramatic trials go down I often get a phone call.

I enjoy courtroom sketching but it has its challenges. Here’s some of the balls a courtroom artist needs to juggle:

Time pressure. In the modern news biz everything is urgent. Most trials start at around 9am and you have to get something to the news truck by 10:30 so they can film it for the 11:00 broadcast—even if the trial is still going on. Then its back into the courtroom where all the art has to be finished up by about 3:30 in time to make the 5:00 newscast.

Modern newspaper and TV news budgets are not what they used to be. Often a TV station can only afford to have me come in for a day or two, usually on the day something dramatic is expected such as a key witness testifying or the verdict being read. So I have to create a few “stock” drawings that can be re-used on news broadcasts over the next several days.

At a bare minimum they need a drawing of the defendant (the person on trial), a drawing of the judge, and a sketch of anything significant that might occur such as an emotional witness or a key piece of evidence being presented. If there’s time I also try to include a large “bird’s-eye view” of the room to give everything a sense of space and to give the camera man something to pan across when he films my drawings.

When someone takes the stand you never know if they will be there for five minutes or five hours so you have to be able to draw fast and capture a likeness quickly.

Some artists use brown or gray paper to eliminate the extra step of having to color in the background. But one of the drawbacks is that colored paper can’t withstand a lot of erasing-and-redrawing. I prefer using colored pencil on sturdy white bristol paper, though I may start switching to colored paper simply to alleviate some of the time pressure.

Courtroom sketches are usually quick and dirty. These are not meant to be polished masterpieces. They are disposable pieces of art created to flash briefly on the TV screen during a few short news broadcasts and then disappear into the ether. That doesn’t mean I can be sloppy—the drawings must be solid and accurate, but not overly detailed. There just isn’t enough time to render every hair and wrinkle.

Under no circumstances am I allowed to sketch members of the jury. I can’t even draw just the bodies and leave the heads blank. Their anonymity must be completely protected. That’s fine with me because most days I wouldn’t have time to add twelve more people to the drawing.

Location, location, location. Most of the time I’m seated in the gallery along with the rest of the public and the press. High-profile trials are usually crowded so I have to get their early to snag a good seat, hopefully towards the front. But getting there early means the “stage” is empty. Nothing but tables and podiums and empty chairs. I don’t know where the key players (lawyers, defendant, etc.) will eventually sit. So I pick a spot and hope I have a clear view of the defendant once he or she enters the room and sits down. By the time the trial starts the room will probably be packed and I’ll be trapped in my seat. If I choose poorly I’ll wind up staring at the defendant’s back all day, which can make it nearly impossible to do a good drawing of their face.

Making it interesting. Real life trials bear little resemblance to what you see depicted in your favorite TV courtroom drama. There’s very little shouting or pacing or objecting or witnesses breaking down in tears. 95% of the time everyone stays seated in their chairs talking calmly to each another, often with long pauses as lawyers shuffle papers, review their notes, and whisper in each others’ ears. Even when a key witness is on the stand its not uncommon for the lawyer to remain seated at his table, several feet from the witness, as he calmly asks his questions. Everyone seems like they are going out of their way to suppress any emotion, maintaining somber poker faces most of the time. I suppose that comes from a sense of reverence for the law, objectivity, and justice that our legal system is designed to uphold. The atmosphere always feels weighty and somber. That’s great for the legal system but it makes for boring drawings. So part of my job while I draw is to scan the room and listen attentively, waiting for an out-of-the-ordinary moment that might give me something to compose a sketch around. Sometimes that moment never comes.

Staying objective. During the somber and dry proceedings I try to look for interesting poses and expressions, but I also need to make sure that what I sketch doesn’t give a false or distorted impression about what’s really going on. An interesting pose held for only a few moments will be frozen forever in my drawing. If I draw the defendant slouching back in his chair it might make him look arrogant or detached. If I draw him with his back straight and his chin out, a couple of wrong lines and I might make him look defiant. Either pose would add personality and life to the drawing but it might not be a true representation of what was really going on in the room. I don’t want to overthink it but in the back of mind I’m constantly trying to find a balance between staying objective without doing a boring drawing.

Tom Petters Trial

Having said all of that, here’s a few sketches I did this morning for the sentencing of Tom Petter’s in St. Paul. Recently Petters was convicted of running a $3.7 billion Ponzi scheme, the largest in Minnesota history. Today he learned that he will spend the next fifty years behind bars.

The entire proceeding took less than 90 minutes during which I roughed out four sketches. By 10:30 I had dabbed a bit of color on the black-and-white roughs and then rushed them out to the news truck to be filmed. Then I zipped over to a nearby cafe where I polished them up by adding color and detail before rushing them across town to the TV station. I was in my car headed back home by 1:30.

Unfortunately this was one of the days where I picked the wrong spot to sit in the courtroom. I wound up behind Petters and a little to the left. Except for a few brief head turns I only saw hair, cheekbone, and a hint of nose. That’s a shame because I really wanted to capture his expression when the sentence was read. Even his body language was surprisingly reserved. Petters struck no dramatic poses. He stayed very calm and still throughout the whole thing. So I did the best I could.

You can watch news footage with my sketches here. In a fun little twist, while I was in the cafe Richard Sennott, a photographer from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, snapped a photo of me. It wound up in a slide show about the trial on the Star-Tribune website (I’m the third picture).

The lead attourney for Tom Petters makes a final plea to the judge for leniency.
Defendant Tom Petters listens as his attourney speaks.
Tom Petters gives his statement to the judge.
Petters (center) listens as his sentence is handed down.

And here’s a few sketches I’ve done for past trials. You can view more samples on the courtroom sketching page of my website.

Defendant in the Gamboa meth trial, Fargo ND
A witness in the Gamboa meth trial, Fargo ND
A witness testifies at the Rocori High School shooting trial.
Prosecution speaks at Rocori High School shooting trial.
Grieving mother speaks at Rocori High School shooting trial. She's holding a rock that had special meaning for her.
Ronald Reed murder trial.
Ronald Reed murder trial.