Society loves courtroom dramas – they allow the viewer to consume the uncertainty of someone else’s life as opposed to fixating on their own. (I am as guilty of this as anyone: I’ve watched courtroom dramas every week religiously in the past, especially Primal Fear and The Lincoln Lawyer.) We get hooked on the interrelations of characters, the impending catastrophe, the emotional mind games played by the press, lawyers, and bogeymen criminals. The allure of the genre, I believe, has to do with the hidden nature of the legal scenario. Films, television shows, and podcasts purport to expose the mystery of the courtroom, and the private lives of those tangled up in its web.
Beyond courtroom dramas and ‘true crime’ stories of trials, such as Dateline, American Crime Story, Killing Fields, and my recent favourite, Netflix’s The Staircase, the courtroom sketch is a key example of how the goings-on at trial are represented and disseminated. Notable cases that have been illustrated include Amy Winehouse’s 2009 trial for assault after she was accused of hitting a woman at a charity ball. A drawing by sketch artist Priscilla Coleman shows Winehouse extending her leg and hitching up her dress, in order to demonstrate to the court her slight frame as evidence of her innocence. In contrast, the mood of Coleman’s drawings of Rolf Harris during his 2014 trial for indecent assault is distinctly stern. In the background of one sketch, two members of the jury place their hands over their faces – presumably in light of an unwanted verdict. All of the figures surrounding Harris are vividly animated, yet he sits slumped and despondent, facing the judge as if his fate has overwhelmed him. Shortly after the verdict, Coleman tweeted: ‘#rolfharris guilty. I think we probably guessed that.’ TV news coverage of the trial followed the release of Coleman’s sketches. The Independent reported that Harris ‘show[ed] no remorse’ during the trial – a depiction shaped by Coleman’s interpretation of Harris’s behaviour in the courtroom.
Taylor Swift’s courtroom portrait is among the most humorous I have encountered. After Swift filed a lawsuit against ex-DJ David Mueller for groping her, a sketch by Jeff Kandyba became a subject of public debate – especially on social media. On Twitter one fan wrote, ‘Why does the @taylorswift13 courtroom sketch look like #OwenWilson?’ Swift appears older, her stance slightly hunched: more dinner lady than pop star. The background is coloured orange and her expression is pensive and aged. (In his defence, Kandyba claimed ‘she was difficult to draw because she was too pretty’.) Jane Rosenberg faced a similar backlash for her portrayal of quarterback Tom Brady in 2015, which was heavily scrutinised by the press. USA Today reported ‘it looks like Brady’s face was put in one of those machines that crushes cars’; CNB News said he looked like Lurch from The Addams Family, or E.T. (In reality, the sketch wasn’t so bad – I’ve seen people pull similar faces on drugs.)
During my research, it became apparent that there is a lack of critical reflection on this genre of portraiture and legal modes of sketching trials. The courtroom is where accused citizens stand before a judge, cases are heard, and the verdict is returned to the subject. It is where families, victims, press, public, and police sit together and await the verdict of the jury. It is a place where lives change in an instant, where the agency of the individual is suspended and placed into the hands of the state. These strange and sometimes spectacular sketches appear in the media after the trial, presenting complicated questions of representation, agency, and empathy. Who draws the images in the closed space of the courtroom, and for what purpose? Do the drawings they produce seek to reflect the experiences of the people captured in their sketches – or do they have another agenda?
In the UK, where photography is almost entirely banned inside the courtroom, artists draw from memory after the trial.
Following this, they sell their illustrations to media outlets. ‘These deadlines are hideous,’ explained artist Christine Cornell to the BBC in 2017, describing the time pressures those in her profession face: when ‘the hearing’s over is when they want the drawing’. Because the sketches are drawn from memory, it is the practice of many courtroom artists to take written notes of the scene they are observing. For example the artist Julia Quenzler told the BBC that she ‘writes brief notes to herself about the hair, facial features, clothing and body language of the main players’ to then translate into a visual image after the hearing.
Courtroom sketches are legally sanctioned media representations of trial proceedings – their production bound to the media and court’s demand for documentation. With regards to this art form, I’ve come to understand that visibility doesn’t necessarily mean retaining agency over one’s appearance. Some forms of visibility can actually be alienating when the representation is inauthentic to reality, or contravenes the wishes of the individual. ‘Nobody’s there to pose for you,’ William Hennessy Jr told the BBC in 2017, a courtroom artist who has sketched Mike Tyson, Chelsea Manning, and Paul Manafort. ‘You want to think journalistically, you’re providing a visual story.’ By this measure, the work of an artist like Hennessy Jr lies somewhere between producing documentation and creating marketable, eye-catching material.
In today’s society it seems anachronistic that we often still rely on sketches made after the fact. (That an artist can take written notes in court also raises the question: why can’t they draw?) In the US, as of 2014, all 50 states permitted photography in the courtroom, rendering the sketch artist obsolete. Yet the fact that the courtroom sketch is still extant in many countries is evidence of ambivalent attitudes towards the application and efficacy of technology. Why use sketches, after all, when you could take photographs or produce film? As the trial of OJ Simpson demonstrated, photography in the courtroom can be as much of a problem as it is a solution. Simpson’s trial was one of the most controversial in the last twenty-five years – USA Today called it the ‘the most publicised criminal case in recent history’. In Los Angeles, 1995, Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson – his ex-wife – and her friend Ron Goldman. The feeling that he got away with murder – with the help of his lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, a master at acquitting the rich and famous who also represented Michael Jackson – was compounded by the fact he later admitted as much in his tawdry book If I Did It (2007), a tell-all confession. Simpson’s trial raised debate about TV and photography in the courtroom. The judge ruled live coverage acceptable, and a media circus ensued: when the trial began on 24 January, it was televised for 134 days by network outlets. Yet despite the wide use of photography in US courtrooms since 1987, the appearance of video was unheard of at the time – and is perhaps a testament to the public fascination with the case, not to mention the financial incentive for the press. The heightened visibility caused enormous public fascination with the trial as an emotive, politically explosive soap opera – arguably to the detriment of the victims, whose stories became entangled in Simpson’s audacious spectacle. Following the trial, and understandably, many judges decided to ban filming in their courts.
When it comes to matters of the courtroom, some cases are surely easier to empathise with than others. A sketch artist may have a personal connection to the plight of the accused or accuser, and certain crimes are deemed so abhorrent that to be associated with them at all can result in lasting stigma – even when the accused is found not guilty. Deep-rooted stereotypes of what a criminal looks like, and the socio-economic backgrounds from which criminality arises, could also impact upon an artist’s treatment of their subject. In addition to this, institutions and other professional bodies are capable of exerting influence over when and how empathy is expressed. Arlie Hochschild describes this latter problem in her book The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (1979):
When rules about how to feel and how to express feelings are set by management . . . and when private capacities for empathy and warmth are put to corporate uses, what happens to the way a person relates to her feelings or to her face?
As Horschild suggests, when emotional discipline is exercised within the workplace it produces a particular dialectic of empathy, one in which only some people are extended the right to express their feelings. One person’s idea of professionalism is another’s emotional purgatory. In the case of the courtroom sketch artist, I wanted to know when and how empathy is invoked or suppressed. Do the artists extend themselves emotionally, and for whom, and why? Does their profession even allow for it? Where does their loyalty lie?
In a bid to answer these questions, I spent time at the Old Bailey in London, the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales during the autumn months of 2017, in the hope of watching courtroom sketch artists in action. I wanted to experience the atmosphere in which they work, to imagine what it might be like to draw a trial, and to better understand their role in the legal ecosystem. After sitting in on a number of cases, what struck me was the way in which courtroom artists become witnesses themselves: to the court proceedings, the fate of the accused and accusers, and the general atmosphere of the trial. Most of the cases I attended related to asylum seekers from Afghanistan or Syria fighting for refugee status in the UK. (Generally, trials the public can observe are of this nature; the Old Bailey primarily holds civic and minor criminal cases.) During the first, I watched a young Syrian woman swiftly denied asylum by the judge – over the coming months, this became a disturbingly recurrent scene. Two weeks later, I watched the case of a middle-aged white man who had racked up a large fine for unpaid parking tickets. There weren’t courtroom artists in these trials, just a few public witnesses, members of the defence, and people from the prosecution.
After observing a number of trials I started to get the picture: courtroom artists draw celebrities and high-profile cases because they are sensationalised, emotionally evocative, and profitable. But I got a sense of the kind of environment an artist might be expected to translate: the dimly lit courtroom, the legal hierarchies, the orderly manner of the interactions and responses. The Old Bailey felt like Shakespearean theatre – incredibly grand, formal, and traditional. Tradition extends to how the judges are named: they are still all addressed ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.
I watched six cases that autumn. During the last trial I made the following note in my journal: ‘this form of witnessing makes artists also accountable in their ‘service’ to the media and the legal system, while simultaneously bearing the weighty job of influencing public perceptions of the individual on trial’. In the days after, it seemed imperative I talk to someone who had negotiated this complicated and highly charged terrain. My enquiries led me to Priscilla Coleman, the woman who had drawn Amy Winehouse displaying her leg at her trial in 2009.
‘Artist makes history by becoming first person allowed to draw sketches inside court,’ declared an article on Mirror Online in October 2013. The court in question was the UK’s Supreme Court, and, as the article explained, this was the first time a sketch artist had been permitted to record proceedings ‘in almost 90 years’. The Supreme Court is the only judiciary in England and Wales which permits filming. Because of this, an artist was also allowed to draw the proceedings – an appeal case concerning a Christian couple who had disallowed a gay couple from staying in their guesthouse. That artist was Priscilla Coleman. I Googled her, and discovered that her sketches are regularly published on platforms including the BBC and the Daily Mail.
Having worked for fourteen years as a courtroom artist in Texas, and for the last twelve in the UK, Coleman is a woman with a special insight into the ethical dilemmas particular to her profession, as well as the relationship between US and UK law. Coleman moved to the UK twenty years ago on the lookout for work, owing to the steady decline in work for sketch artists in the US since 1987 when courts began allowing access to photographers. Previously she had worked for seven years at an ABC station in Houston, Texas. Before I made contact with Coleman, I decided to research the equivalent legal restrictions in place in the UK, where the prohibition of photographs and sketches during the courtroom was first implemented in UK law in 1925. Legal documentation produced at the time describes precisely what forms of representation were banned:
‘photograph’, ‘portrait’ or ‘sketch’ shall be deemed to be a photograph, portrait or sketch taken or made in court if it is taken or made in the courtroom or in the building or in the precincts of the building in which the court is held, or if it is a photograph, portrait or sketch taken or made of the person while he is entering or leaving the courtroom or any such building or precincts as aforesaid.
The year 1925 may seem a long way from the present day, yet the legislature demonstrates a didactic approach to the representation of court proceedings which remains in place in the UK. There are a few special circumstances in which artists have been permitted to sketch in UK courts – such as the permission granted to Coleman – but they are scarce. Sketch artists are still largely forced to draw from recall after the hearing, taking written notes and reminders while inside the courtroom to refer to at a later date. In this context, the job of reporting becomes entangled with a notoriously unreliable faculty: memory. (Surely, there must be many instances in which a subject is accidentally given glasses or an over-sized nose.) The sketch artist must also conform to the demands of media outlets, who may, for example, have a particular colour palette in use on set that artworks are obliged to complement.
When eventually I met with Coleman on a November day at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the role memory plays in her work was one of the first things I asked her to describe. ‘I have to take notes,’ she told me, ‘so it sticks in my mind, as if you’re studying for a test or something. It’s a weird thing to do, but it makes people not so aware of my presence in the courtroom.’ Originally from Texas, Coleman’s demeanour was reminiscent of other people I’d met from the state: sharply presented, professional, measured, and well mannered, yet also cautious.
There is a kind of exposure particular to the interviewee of which she seemed aware – the possibility that a subject’s answers can be reworded to suggest an alternative dialogue, opinion, or persona – and she wanted reassurances about my agenda. Janet Malcolm’s 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer considers the ethical undertaking of journalism, famously describing the profession as ‘morally indefensible’. Malcolm raises the idea that the journalist has the power to reveal something their subject doesn’t necessarily want to be shown, to tell a story other than the one they want to be told. I realised that the ethical conundrum of portraying another person was as relevant to me, as an interviewer, as it was to her, as a sketch artist: both are practices of necessarily subjective witnessing. Yet unlike the interviewer, the sketch artist reports on their subject from a distance. Coleman’s subjects are given no voice, no say in how they are portrayed.
When Coleman works she is under no obligation to draw the subjects in a certain light: the only requirement is to deliver the images promptly. In such conditions the failure of memory is a relatable shortcoming. If a courtroom artist forgets or misremembers, their mistakes can be understood as human imperfections – the result of a difficult job rather than a calculated strategy of misrepresentation. Yet Coleman has the power to construct a public narrative for an individual, a narrative that can be manipulated or enhanced by her use of light, or the exaggeration of certain gestures and features.
In recent years, sympathy and empathy have been widely theorised in academia, activist circles, and the art world. Phrases like ‘radical empathy’, ‘collective care’, and ‘the politics of care’ may have become buzzwords, but they are often used in emotionally charged scenarios, too – mental health situations, interpersonal dilemmas, and, of course, the criminal justice system. Political scientist Naomi Murakawa coins the term ‘weaponised empathy’ in relation to racialised police tactics, as a means of showing when empathy is abused by legal authorities. The weaponisation of empathy in this domain, she writes, operates as ‘a tool to dull resistance to the routine racial terror of policing – racialised suspicion and the processing of mass citations and arrests’. Weaponised empathy often manifests as the police constituting an appearance of being caring and advertising ‘liberal’ credentials, in order to detract attention from structural violence. As such, empathy is instrumentalised to give a false facade of protection, governance, and safety.
The role of the courtroom sketch artist led me to consider the difference between sympathy and empathy, a train of thought that brought me to Leslie Jamison’s essay collection Empathy Exams (2014). Jamison writes that ‘empathy isn’t just something that happens to us – a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain – it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves’. This sentence stuck in my mind. Jamison proposes that individuals have control over empathy, the degree to which it is experienced, and for whom and what we feel it. Did Coleman view her art as an opportunity for this kind of conscious extension – a way to reach out to others, to acknowledge them? ‘I probably have general sympathy with everyone’s face,’ she told me:
because there is a way people can look better than they would normally – for example if a barrister or judge is looking down they create this double chin which they probably won’t have if they’re looking up. I don’t want to show that if I can avoid it. They don’t have to look bad. They can look their best self.
While empathy suggests an ability to understand and share the feelings of another, in contrast, sympathy is the act of comprehending misfortune. Empathy can be both an active function and a cognitive choice. As the writer Roman Krznaric puts it, it is ‘the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives and using that understanding to guide your actions’. With this in mind, I wondered what it meant for Coleman to describe having ‘general sympathy’ with someone’s face, and whether it extended beyond the desire to look good. In her illustrations, can we identify empathy through the portrayal of emotion?
It is through our encounters with other people’s faces that we learn to interpret emotion. In some courtroom sketches the background is blurry, or the walls filled in as a colour block – in these instances, the details of the architecture have been deemed surplus to requirements. (The drawings of the cult leader and serial murderer Charles Manson from his 1968-71 trial are a case in point. In these sketches he takes centre stage, like some kind of rugged monster, the background completely blacked out – further reinforcing his morose, hippy-turned-psychopath demeanour.) This aesthetic code emphasises that people are always the focus. ‘To respond to the face, to understand its meaning, means to be awake to what is precarious in another life, rather, than the precariousness of life itself,’ Judith Butler writes: the face is the most exposed and vulnerable part of someone else, the locus of empathy, a site of encounter, receptivity, and entanglement. Yet what I found compelling about Coleman was her emotional disengagement from the subject at hand. Commentary on such serious subjects as power and representation at trial was frequently followed by laughter or distasteful jokes. The conditions under which labour is undertaken are often intertwined with emotional expectations placed upon the worker. Therapists, teachers, social workers (to name a few), and, of course, those in the medical industry all are bound to professional constraints which demand emotional control and regulation. These demands don’t escape the courtroom artist, either. Had Coleman had to harden her emotions to carry out her job, I wondered? Yet on talking to her further, something akin to an empathetic awareness became apparent in her self-knowledge of the limitations of her emotional and artistic perspective – and the effect this may have on the individual on trial. She described to me how she ‘doesn’t like to have eye contact with these people too much,’ because she ‘doesn’t want to unnerve them’.
Trials are symptomatic of how the criminal justice system uses time as an emotional weapon. The UK Ministry of Justice reports that the average criminal case takes around ‘twenty- four weeks in total’.20 From the moment of arrest to the actual court hearing the accused citizen anticipates the trial, anticipates the possible sentence, anticipates the inevitable lack of control and summoning to prison. This anticipation affects how people behave and feel in court. Temporal precariousness is reflected in Coleman’s illustrations, as her court scenes document what happens before a decision is made about a person’s future, moments before the verdict.
Coleman’s art is subjected to intense environmental pressures – sometimes, she told me, the conditions are such that she may even find herself ‘requiring binoculars to scrutinise the expressions of the subjects as they give sworn testimony’. She described how simple things, such as the seat she is allocated by the court, may also have an impact upon what she produces – it ‘affects what I can see and take notes of,’ she says. ‘It affects how the people in the room are drawn.’ When we met, she explained that the demand for her images is such that almost immediately after completion, ‘a sketch is photographed against the nearest available wall’ by press agencies. Coleman mainly makes her drawings in twenty to thirty minutes after the trial – not long, to decide upon the public image of the accused.
Formal spaces of criminology, correction, and punishment create order: they structure, define, reproduce, and sanction. I arrived at questions of affect while considering the fraught subject of institutionalisation, and deliberating upon how courtroom artists might, and indeed do, feel and assert their emotions in an environment which may demand restraint on their part. The academic terrain known as ‘affect theory’ is more concerned with what emotions do, than what they are – how they influence action, ignite reactions, and constitute selfhood. To me, in a society where we are encouraged to enact individualism, this call to awareness feels like a plausible – and indeed crucial – step in the direction of a more conscious, interrelated way of being. Alongside Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed tentatively explores the political dimension of emotions. As she writes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), ‘a claim about a subject or a collective is clearly dependent on relations of power, which endow ‘others’ with meaning and value’. If we are to take Ahmed’s claim, that meaning and value are dependent upon relations of power, perhaps in bearing witness to the relationality of the courtroom, sketch artists can tell us a great deal about the affective place from which their drawings are created.
Working in an environment where emotion runs high is a concern for Coleman: ‘I worry about making them look guilty,’ she told me. Experiences of guilt are bound to feelings of responsibility, and the complexity of Coleman’s guilt can be read through Horschild’s examination of this emotional state and the tensions it produces. Horschild writes, if ‘guilt upholds feeling rules from the inside: it is an internal acknowledgement of an unpaid psychological debt. Even ‘I should feel guilty’ is a nod in the direction of guilt, a weaker confirmation of what is owed.’ To be guilty, and to have an awareness of guilt, are part of the nature of Coleman’s job: it seems perfectly right that she questions this emotion.
Trials do not consist of a single person in a courtroom. The accused may also be accompanied by barristers, jurors, prosecutors, and members of the public watching from the viewing gallery. As such, most of the courtroom sketches I’ve encountered depict more than one person. In the absence of a camera, the artist’s purpose is to capture the moment and the mood, to produce a freeze frame of the central cast. The faces in Coleman’s sketches linger as carefully orchestrated images, which weave a narrative of legal relationality. A drawing of Heather Mills pouring water over the head of Paul McCartney’s lawyer during their divorce trial in 2008, from which she was awarded £24 million, is among the most emotionally charged of her illustrations. The lawyer is portrayed as frail and unassuming, while Mills’s stance is confident and aggressive.
When it comes to choosing what cases to cover, Coleman says she tends to go for the ‘newsworthy ones, because money-wise, that’s of interest to the newspaper’. In this way, crime becomes a commodity: a quandary that keeps images of the accused in the news, and the court artists in their seats, a process of capitalising upon the legal system. Surely, then, as viewers it is our responsibility to question why we might accept these portraits as a source of truth in the first place, or at the very least accept the flaws and complications this unusual mode of ‘legal art’ presents.
Image: Robert Templeton Drawings and sketches related to the trial of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, New Haven, Connecticut. © Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library