Donald Trump, the Courtroom Sketch, and the Dying Art

The image that appears in the April 17, 2023, issue gives viewers a look at a historic court proceeding that cameras could not have captured. It is the arraignment of Donald Trump two weeks prior.

The case is of great interest to the public because Trump is the first former U.S. President to be criminally charged. When Trump pleaded no contest to 34 counts of falsifying records in business, only three courtroom artists were allowed to record his facial expressions and reactions.

It was like a throwback from an era when only artists were able to provide visual records of court proceedings. Courtroom artists are now working in a dying field as more and more jurisdictions allow cameras into courtrooms.

After studying both courtroom drawings as well as tabloid crime photography, I wonder what would be lost if the courtroom art were to disappear.

History of courtroom sketches

Many judges still forbid photography from taking place in courtrooms despite the fact that courtroom artists’ numbers are dwindling.

A national standard banning cameras from U.S. courts is less than 100 years old.

After World War I, tabloids like the New York Daily News began to use courtroom photos as a standard. These newspapers sent reporters to cover high-profile trials, leveraging the patchwork of judicial opinions about whether cameras should be permitted in courtrooms.

The trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann sparked a wave against cameras in courtrooms.

In 1935, Hauptmann was charged with kidnapping the child of Charles Lindbergh and murdering it. In order to cover the “Trial of the Century,” an estimated 700 journalists and more than 130 cameras rushed to Flemington in New Jersey. This led to reports of photographers climbing on the counsel table, pushing their flashbulbs into witnesses’ faces, and jockeying to take pictures of Hauptmann.

The trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann drew a large number of photographers. Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The American Bar Association, after investigating the sensational publicity surrounding Hauptmann’s trial, banned courtroom photography under Canon 35 of the 1937 Canons of Judicial Ethics. In 1944, Congress followed the American Bar Association and enacted rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which banned photography in federal courts during judicial proceedings.

The ban on the use of a firearm in federal criminal courts in America and before the U.S. Supreme Court remains in effect today.

The bulky cameras, and their cables, mics, and wires of the past required that judges, lawyers, and jurors navigate around them. Cameras of today are less disruptive, whether they’re in a compact, portable format or permanently mounted, remotely controlled features.

Cameras can provide the public with direct access to the proceedings of a court, but they can also undermine what the American Bar Association calls the “appropriate dignity and decorum” in the courtroom. Cameras are allowed in court, such as the O.J. Judges and lawyers worry about the possibility that proceedings could turn into a circus-like spectacle, as they did in O.J.

A flash of artistic inspiration

Cameras and human artists are often seen as competitors when it comes to the production of courtroom pictures. This is because the history behind courtroom sketches can’t be separated from that of the prohibition of photography in courtrooms.

Freelance courtroom artists who work for a television or print news agency must draw fast to meet deadlines. Mary Chaney, a courtroom artist, was able, by more than 260 sketches, to depict the criminal and civil trial of the four Los Angeles Police officers accused of beating Rodney King.

Mary Chaney’s sketch of Rodney King as he testified during his 1994 trial. Library of Congress

David Rose and other courtroom artists assert that the mechanical eye of the camera is inferior to the human eye or hand that would be used by viewers.

The camera is able to produce highly detailed images, but it can’t capture the emotional resonance that a courtroom moment brings. Courtroom artists can add dramatic and sensory insights to their work by channeling the highs and lows from a trial into their bodies.

The courtroom artist can compress hours of court activity into a single drawing. This adds to the drama. Artists can manipulate their compositions and perspectives to create “artifice.” Even though the judges, lawyers, and witnesses are spread out physically in the courtroom, they can be brought into proximity.

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