From the 1940s to the late ’70s, cameras and TV crews were largely prohibited from entering the courtroom. As a result, courtroom sketches are the only visual representation of some of the most heated, significant, and sensational moments in legal history. At the time, these images were used for media coverage, but many of them are also impressive pieces of art.
Many of these illustrations are now part of the Library of Congress, which has gathered them for an exhibition titled Drawing Justice: The Art of Courtroom Illustration. The exhibition—which can also be viewed online—shows visitors over a half-century of trials that shaped history, all seen through the varying illustration styles of skilled artists, many of whom were hired by newspapers and television stations to document the proceedings. And although courtrooms have increasingly permitted limited camera usage since 1977, the exhibition also encompasses many landmark and celebrity cases in recent years—from Michael Jackson’s child molestation trial in 2005 to the Boston Marathon bombers in 2015—that are big enough to still receive the illustration treatment.
As the introduction to the show points out, camera prohibition in courts came about after the 1935 trial of Lindbergh baby-kidnapper Richard Hauptman. The trial caused such a media frenzy, the American Bar Association passed a recommendation that cameras not be permitted in court. By 1946, photography and radio were banned in federal courts.
Of course, that didn’t stop the media from covering trials, and hiring artists became a way to give audiences a visual of the event. While many of the scenes captured were somber and predictable—men in dark suits and robes, a quietly listening jury—others illustrate dramatic moments, rendered in ink or watercolor, that wouldn’t have otherwise been seen outside of the courtroom walls.
In one image from the exhibition, for example, artist Bill Robles sketched Charles Manson as he leapt forward to stab with a pencil the judge that was ruling on the murders of Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. In another, Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale is seen bound to his courtroom chair, attempting to write on a legal pad. Seale was on trial along with the National Mobilization Committee (MOBE) for protesting the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention in Chicago. After he verbally lashed out, the judge ordered him bound and gagged—in the courtroom—and later his trial was severed from the Chicago Eight.
These drawings are as important for remembering these legal moments as they were for reporting on them at the time. (Walter Cronkite, for instance, led off a CBS Evening News section on the Manson trial with Robles’s drawing.) But they’re also striking for their artistic quality. An illustration of the trial that led to the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009 depicts two men showing the court the chain used in the murder of Matthew Shepard. Eerie and isolating, the drawing shows the men bathed in a purple glow.
In an illustration of Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, artist Howard Brodie demonstrates Ruby’s gulp at the verdict against him with shaky graphite lines. “You must pick up little details,” he told the Library of Congress. “And I always had to be objective. I couldn’t have preconceived attitudes. I viewed the defendant as just another human being, and I simply drew what I saw.”