Book Review: Elizabeth Williams and Sue Russell, The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art
Posted on December 18, 2014
I’ve always thought that a good courtroom sketch can tell you more about what really goes on in a trial than a transcript or even sometimes than a good firsthand narrative account. A trial is a drama, and sometimes the drama is conveyed better by the expression on the witness’s face, or the body language of the lawyer confronting the witness in front of the judge or the jury, than by the transcript.
If you think this way, or even if you don’t, you will love The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art, by Elizabeth Williams and Sue Russell.
The book, which Jonathan Benthall named as a book of the year in the Times Literary Supplement, showcases some of the best American courtroom art from mostly sensational trials of the late twentieth century to today. My guilty secret: I have been enjoying the book for a while but only recently stopped to read the interesting text that accompanies the art. It’s that kind of book.
Here are drawings of two of the “Manson girls,” Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten, by Bill Robles. If you’re like me, you may not know much about the details of the Manson case or who these women were. But you can see their personalities and almost hear their voices in the drawings. Akins seems intense and frightening; Van Houten entitled and happy to be holding forth as the center of attention during her testimony. Robles distills their character for us without making us wade through even a little bit of the testimony. Another example may be more familiar to modern readers: here is Elizabeth Williams’s drawing of Martha Stewart on trial for securities fraud. Williams shows us the tough, powerful, and maybe a little arrogant woman we may not have known from Stewart’s pre-trial persona. In Williams’s art, truth will out. Williams, by the way, is familiar to Letters Blogatory readers as the artist behind the drawing of Judge Zambrano testifying in his Angry Birds hat, which is a great drawing but which didn’t make the book, perhaps because it came too late.
How about the lawyers? There are lots of sketches of well-known lawyers throughout the book. One of my favorites is this drawing of Ted Wells questioning Guy Hands during his defense of Citigroup against a fraud claim. You can see how imposing Wells is, how he fills the space of the courtroom with his presence. No transcript can do this. I suspect that courtroom art contributes to the development of legendary lawyers’ personas.
While some of the best drawings in the book focus on faces and body language, I like this drawing of the Watergate trial by Howard Brodie, which lets us take in the whole scene. I don’t know if the artist intended this, but to me, because all the men are dressed in blue suits and the chairs are upholstered in red, the courtroom itself reminds me of an American flag.
At the other extreme are Robles’s closeups of the jury from the Michael Jackson trial. Of course, you can’t actually draw the jurors, but Robles finds a way to show us that they are regular people (wearing sneakers and sandals) trying their best to do justice (taking copious notes).
If I have one criticism of the book, it’s that its focus on sensational trials may misrepresent the reality of what courtrooms are like 99% of the time. Who has ever seem a courtroom artist on motion day in a civil session, or at a run-of-the-mill trial in a civil case. As A Civil Action proved, even motions to dismiss can come alive in the hands of a good writer, and no doubt they could come alive in the hands of a good artist, too. But maybe I am being too parochial. A few lawyers aside, who would want to read a book that tried to portray the average courtroom on an average day?
In any case, I highly recommend the book.