The Washington Post

Sketching the Benghazi suspect

First day of vacation and I got the call at around one in the afternoon from the Post’s dayside national editor. I was needed at the U.S. District Court in D.C. to sketch the arraignment hearing of Ahmed Abu Khattala, accused of the 2012 Islamic militant attacks on the American Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya. So I shut off the lawnmower and got in the car, and by 2:30 p.m., I was on Constitution Avenue, queuing up to go through the metal detector just outside the courtroom – sketchpad, ballpoint pen and cellphone in hand. Up at the head of the line I could see other more professional-looking courtroom artists with big portfolios and those natty plastic foldout art supply boxes.

An arraignment hearing is a courtroom artist’s worst nightmare. It is the point where an accused felon hears the charges against him for the first time and has an opportunity to enter a plea. They often don’t last very long, sometimes a matter of minutes. Not long to draw something.

When I finally got into the courtroom I approached the guard and asked if I could join the artists who had been allowed to sit in the coveted jury box. He looked at my tiny sketchpad and lack of any artistic demeanor somewhat skeptically but let me through. I was the last to arrive. The other artists had not only seats, but seats for their equipment. I settled in on the last seat in the back row trying to look casual and unconcerned.

A dozen years ago I was fortunate enough to get to spend a couple of days with Howard Brodie. Probably, arguably, and likely the best courtroom artist the country has ever seen. Brodie covered all of the big trials through the sixties, seventies and eighties for CBS. He sketched them all: Jack Ruby. Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer; Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy’s killer; Squeaky Fromme, who was President Gerald Ford’s would-be assassin and Arthur Bremmer, who was Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s. He sketched John Hinckley, who did manage to shoot President Reagan. In some cases, Brodie followed the accused through conviction all the way through to sketching the execution. He covered the debates leading up to the Civil Rights act of 1964, Watergate, the trial for the Vietnam My Lai massacre. He sketched them all, and he sketched with an unerring eye for detail. He was, I think, the gold standard in accurate live rendering in court. Don’t even get me started on the depth and breadth of the quality of his war art.

Brodie’s style in court was much like his style in war journalism – pure unflinching honesty. He only drew what he saw and repressed his own opinion. As an artistic documentarian he took readers to places that they could not go and showed them the truth. For me, it was a bit like visiting god.

I remember his blue eyes glaring at me over his glasses during the interview in his studio. Behind him on one wall in his study there was a childlike sketch of a bald man with glasses – which was a sketch of Brodie himself drawn by accused murderer Charles Manson. Brodie told me that at times during that trial, once Manson figured out what Brodie was doing there, he’d play games with him by shifting position constantly or by making faces. Then one day to amuse himself, Manson turned tables and drew Brodie.

There were no days of deliberative observation with Khattala. At precisely 3:30 p.m. the accused mastermind of the Benghazi attacks was brought in to the court. He looked a little dull-eyed and confused, like a man who had not slept properly for a while. He had a bushy beard and scraggly hair, all of it big and unkempt. I started drawing immediately, although we couldn’t get a clear look at Khattala until he was affixed with a translation device and conferred with his counsel and confirmed that he understood what was being said. Only then did the suspect turn to face the judge and move into a set position we could draw. I had to lean around an empty video camera mount to see him thirty feet away across the court — acutely aware of the frantic pencils of the professional courtroom artists to my left.

But in the end I just drew. The judge read out the charges and advised Khattala of his rights to counsel, the accused swore to tell the truth before God, then entered a plea of not guilty. The judge set a date for pretrial. And we were done. Maybe six minutes.

I bolted from the courtroom, took the stairs and cashed in my chip with the guards to get my phone back. Grabbed a cab back to the office, scanned in the sketch and twenty minutes later it sat on the top spot of Washingtonpost.com. A hour later, I was back on my lawn mower again.

The sketch (top of page) in the end is not very good. It is not very bad either. I sketched what I saw and to the best of my skills put it down on paper as accurately at top speed as I could. It looks like him. He would recognize himself, probably.

It wasn’t until the next day that I got a look at what the other artists had managed to accomplish in the same four or five minute window (see below for a couple of examples). Through incredible skill they have managed to render large sections of the courtroom in color. One or two chose to ignore the device he wore to aid with translation altogether. And some have managed to rearrange the seating positions of everyone involved. One managed to sketch him in the exact second as he entered the courtroom. Impressive stuff, but not very accurate.

The age of the true courtroom artists seems to be long gone. The display of truth seems to have become muddied. Is this one more casualty of our faster-paced news cycle, with producers demanding the sketch asap from courtrooms where photographers aren’t permitted? Have tastes changed, and courtroom artists adapted to keep their work saleable? Or no one knows the difference? News organizations will take and use anything produced. They need something to fill the hole in the page either online or in the paper. My own paper picked up one of these above and ran it unquestioningly online. But I guarantee you if a journalist played fast and loose with the orientation of facts in a story to suit their own purpose, or made things up to fill out a story after the fact – someone would be questioning their credibility very quickly.

Our visual court reportage should face the same scrutiny as the written word, and viewers should have an expectation of truth, as high, or higher than that. The idea is to attempt to render, to the extent of your abilities, exactly what you see. Not exactly what you wish you could see. Or exactly as you’d like things to fit into a TV-shaped window. Or something that you saw and rebuild on later, from memory.

Editors and artists take note, and accept no substitutes. Call me a purist. This kind of accuracy and truthiness is the target we should all reach for in our journalism, either written or drawn. Fulltime courtroom artists, how do you see it? Let me know, and I’ll incorporate your responses into this post.

Lastly, as an example I wanted to offer up a beautiful piece of accurate courtroom artistry by world-class sketcher Victor Juhasz (above). I think that Victor would be the first to admit that he considers himself a Brodie protégé; I hope he won’t mind me borrowing this sketch. It is a scene of other courtroom artists sketching the 1982 trial of John Hinckley. Everyone wore these funky binocular glasses to pull the accused sharply forward. Victor’s work here shows much of the same mastery as Brodie. And that balding head in the background is in fact Brodie himself doing his thing.

You can see more of Victor’s work here on his blog. Drawger

Walter Cronkite, who coined the label Artist-Correspondent especially for Brodie, called him “the ultimate journalist whose pen speaks a thousand words.” And I guess what I am saying although not as eloquently as Cronkite is that everyone could use a little more Brodie influence in all of our visual reportage. You know who you are – and I include myself.

The same rules apply. Get out there and start drawing. Draw what you see – live – and send it in. I’ll publish it here in the deepest vault of Washington Post blogging.

Got a question? Ask me. richard.johnson@washpost.com

Want to see more of my work? www.newsillustrator.com.

Richard is a field artist and visual journalist and works as a senior graphics editor at The Washington Post.

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