This past week I was assigned to create some art of Judge James Randolph Spencer in the corruption trial of former governor Bob McDonnell in the federal district court in Richmond. Spencer, it turned out, had a personality — and wasn’t afraid to display it in court. He had either intentionally or unintentionally become an aspect in a planned story. Or at least he would if we could get some decent art of him. Enter me, and my ballpoint pen — stage right.
My first big concern in courtroom sketching is not the drawing itself, but in making sure I get myself in a position that allows me to draw. In large trials, the competition can be pretty fierce for that front row, with journalists, family members of the accused, spare lawyers and other court artists all jostling for the best position. Get there late or choose the wrong side of the court, and you end up drawing the back of someone’s head.
My second big concern is distance. As in, how big is the courtroom, and how will my eyes hold up to that distance? I am farsighted, fortunately, but that has its limitations in a notoriously underlit courtroom — and the bigger the trial, the larger the square footage. And this counted as a fairly big trial.
After almost a decade away from court sketching, I had returned last month to cover the arraignment hearing of Ahmed Abu Khattala, the terror suspect in the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya. After he made a six-minute appearance on the stand, I did okay, but I was still a little concerned whether my skills would hold up.
I was the only artist in court on this particular day, which was fine with me. There is enough pressure without the competition. But my joy was shortlived. As I entered the court I immediately felt my stomach sink. I had spoken to the reporters who had been covering the trial about how far the judge was from the audience — “about twenty feet,” they had said. I decided never to trust reporters ever again. The judge’s chair looked to be more than twice that distance, possibly three times as far. The judge was a pinhead. If I stuck my arm out, I could make his whole head disappear with my pinky finger.
Luckily, the last thing I had done as I left my house at 5 that morning was pick up my 9-year-old daughter’s bird-watching binoculars. “Just in case,” I remember thinking. They had caused a certain amount of hilarity with security as I came through the court metal detector, but they had not been confiscated, thank the Lord. They were all that saved me.
Drawing with binoculars, it turns out, is really difficult. I had to use two hands to get them on target. Focus the lenses. Memorize the subject. Then put the binoculars down. Pick up my pen. Lift up the paper. Then try to remember what I had just seen. He was a black man, wearing a black robe against a dark wood-paneled background, who would not sit still. His head would swing from the lawyer, to the witness and then sometimes back to the jury. Figuring that the judge would not take kindly to some bloke in the audience staring at him with binos, I felt an intense pressure to work fast. It was, all in all, a thoroughly miserable sketching experience. But I got on with it.
The defense team had the floor and produced one fawningly unapologetic McDonnell fan after another to impress upon the jury his angelic goodness. The seeming sycophancy made my neck ache almost as much as the up and down to the binoculars. But as the hours went on, I gained a great deal of respect for the judge. He really was not one to suffer fools – be they attorneys or witnesses for either side. “We’re going to stop right here, mainly because I can’t take another second,” he quipped before ordering a 15-minute break. Then later, “I don’t know what this line of questioning is supposed to establish? Ask something relevant,” he admonished a defense lawyer. And my favorite came after a lawyer with the prosecution complained, “Objection, your honor. Leading.” Spencer waved a hand and snapped back, “Go ahead and lead.”
Throughout the morning, I persevered with my binoculars — he never did spot me. By lunch, I had created four sketches of the judge. The best you could say about them is that they at least looked vaguely as if they were all the same judge.
As I was despondently packing up for lunch, a man leaned in from the row behind and said, “You do incredible work. I have no idea how that is possible.” That cheered me a little.
I honestly don’t know much about this trial or have an opinion on the former governor’s guilt or innocence, but from my perspective, there did seem to be an active campaign by his team to lay all of the problems at the doorstep of his wife, Maureen. Some of Mrs. McDonnell’s personal laundry was duly aired. According to witnesses I heard, she was “flirty” or “difficult on her staff” or perhaps “not well” in the head. Bob and Maureen sat quite close together and seemed unmoved by the testimony.
My next subject was the former governor himself. Bob McDonnell turned out to be a bit of a bum-shifter and did not hold one position for more than 10 seconds. But he did seem to have only three head positions he favored, so I used a technique my grandfather taught me, which is to draw all three at once on three sheets. It may not be the most effective in terms of accuracy, but it is way faster than waiting for the subject to return to the position you are drawing, and only creating one sketch.
My last sketches for the day were overall scenes. I did one of the defense team, and one of the jury and the final alternate juror sitting bored behind them. Drawing large scenes containing lots of people is always difficult because of the issue with keeping all the proportion straight. This last sketch should give you a decent idea of how far away the judge was, though. I ask his and your forgiveness for the quality of the art this week.
Talking about quality courtroom art, I’d like to highlight the talents of Arthur ‘Art’ Lien. Art has been sketching the Supreme Court since President Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Covering the Supreme Court is his main gig, but he can also be found covering large trials anywhere in the country. Art’s raw talent is in sketching, and he uses it to capture expansive court scenes and essential moments and individuals in trial proceedings. Here are a few examples of the breadth of his skills. This is what the work of a real courtroom artist looks like.
You can see a full history of Art’s work here — Courtartist.com — it is well worth a visit.
Got a question? Ask me at firstname.lastname@example.org