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Arts and Entertainment

Captivating Courtroom Art From O.J. Simpson To Michael Jackson

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Not every trial is televised like O.J. Simpson's. Cameras are often banned or restricted in high-profile court cases, and that's where courtroom artists come in, drawing the criminals, jurors, and witnesses involved that the public otherwise wouldn't get to see. Sometimes their illustrations are the only visual records of key moments in a trial.

"Basically we are there in place of cameras, so that is our main priority, [to] get down the scene as a photographer would," Courtroom artist Elizabeth Williams explains. "Then depending upon the situation, if something explosive happens or an important witness takes the stand, we must capture that. We are to be as accurate as possible."

An art exhibit that's running at the Newport Beach Central Library from Jan. 2 to March 5 takes a look at the work of these artists, who have covered the sensational trials of people like Michael Jackson, Charles Manson and Richard Ramirez (aka the "Night Stalker"). The exhibit is inspired by Williams' co-authored book, The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art, which features artwork from Williams, Bill Robles and Aggie Kenny. It delves into the history of some of the most famous trials that took place over the last 50 years. The show will feature illustrations from the book as well as ones outside of the book.

Williams, who has depicted dramatic events during the Martha Stewart, John Gotti, John DeLorean and Bernard Madoff trials for the Associated Press over the years, got her start in Los Angeles in the 1980s at stations like KNBC and KABC. In her book, she writes that even though she had set out for a career in fashion illustration, "Instead I detoured into drawing courtroom scenes and images of mobsters and murderers and white collar criminals for television news and major newspapers."

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One of her most memorable illustrations is of Bernie Madoff. She told LAist, "I think that the Bernard Madoff case left quite an impression upon me. It was such a huge financial crime, and there were so many victims present in court, so many devastated," she says. When Madoff pleaded guilty, she got a quick drawing of him while he was being led to getting locked up in prison. "When I went outside to get that artwork shot, one of the victims came up to the drawing as the cameraman was rolling on the image and she took her fingers and kissed the drawing and said to me, 'That's just what I wanted to see,' and I said to her 'I know, that's why I drew it.'"

She says sometimes artists have a long time to capture a scene, sometimes not. She references Robles' drawing of Manson's attempt to attack a judge as an example of only having a few moments to see a subject and capture the essence of it.

Williams was mentored by Robles, who has had a long career illustrating the dramatic moments in courtrooms for trials like Charles Manson, Patricia Hearst, Rodney King, O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson. CBS News had hired Robles to cover the Manson trial in the 1970s, and it was the "first and longest trial in my career," Robles tells LAist. Manson is still serving his prison sentence after he was found guilty of orchestrating the murders of several people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. Robles says that some of his favorite drawings include Manson leaping at the judge in an attack during the trial and Manson holding up a copy of the L.A. Times with the headline, "Manson Guilty Nixon Declares," up to the jury.

Robles, Williams and Kenny will be at the Newport Beach Central Library on March 3 at 7 p.m. for a talk about their experiences in covering the cases.

Newport Beach Central Library is located at 1000 Avocado Avenue, Newport Beach, (949) 717-3800. The exhibit is free and runs from Jan. 2 to March 5.