Doing them justice

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His face takes shape beneath her fingers. First with pen and ink, then with markers and pencils. With browns, creams and peaches, John Allen Muhammad comes to life on a sheet of paper held firmly on Betty Wells' lap.

"Let's see here," she says, grasping a fat, pungent marker and putting it to paper. "His hair is pretty black."

The Virginia Beach resident is one of three sketch artists chronicling the legal saga of the suspected sniper, whose third day of trial begins today. The artists' work, along with photographs from a single still camera allowed in court, is all the public is able to see of the man accused in 13 shootings that left 10 people dead in the Washington, D.C., area last October.

Wells, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate who spent 25 years as a sketch artist for NBC, came out of retirement to sketch Muhammad's trial for a FOX affiliate television station in Washington. Next month, when co-defendant Lee Boyd Malvo's trial starts in Chesapeake, she'll be there, too, sketching for the Associated Press.

Other media outlets are using sketch artists as well. While some television stations in the Washington area are using the work of William Hennessey Jr., who is from that area, local stations WAVY-TV 10 and WVEC-TV 13 are using the sketches of Norfolk resident Alba Bragoli.

CNN and MSNBC also have used some of Bragoli's sketches.

Often, sketch artists are used when a courtroom has been completely closed to cameras. Prince William County Judge LeRoy F. Millette Jr., the trial's presiding judge, is allowing only a still camera, which is positioned at the back of the courtroom. The judge presiding over Malvo's trial has ruled that no cameras are allowed, so the artists may be more in demand then.

For now, the artists are able to give a view of the courtroom that the photographer can't capture, such as scenes depicting the defense table from the front. Those are drawn, in part, based on the view from a closed circuit feed in a media-viewing center, where cameras follow the speakers in the courtroom.

"It's nice to have a few artists and a photographer to get the full effect," Wells said.

Wells spent Tuesday camped out in a corner of the viewing center. Bragoli sat there Wednesday, while Wells and Hennessey took turns in the courtroom, where Bragoli said the view - of the back of Muhammad's head - isn't the greatest.

Still the artists, capturing the image of Muhammad, the judge or the attorneys' faces in their minds, are able to sketch out almost realistic scenes.

Among the cases she's covered, Wells sketched the Watergate trials in addition to the trials of John Hinckley, the man who shot former President Ronald Reagan, and of Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who killed her two children.

Tuesday morning, she spent a few hours on a sketch showing Muhammad and one of his attorneys, Jonathan Shapiro, watching Millette. With a fistful of markers and pencils in her left hand, her eyes darted constantly to the huge viewing screen and back to the paper as she scribbled.

"Some people prefer sketches," said Wells as she used different shades of blue to color Shapiro's suit jacket. "We get a different viewpoint. Sometimes we can dramatize a gesture."

A sketch done by Bragoli on Wednesday showed Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert pointing to Muhammad as he asked a potential juror a question. The jurors cannot appear in the sketches. Bragoli included details down to Ebert's comb-over hairstyle.

Bragoli, who went to the Marangoni Art Institute in Milan, Italy, has mostly sketched for trials in Hampton Roads. Like Wells, she's also an artist by trade, living in Norfolk's Willoughby Spit area with her husband, Jim Harding.

Sometimes, Bragoli sells her original sketches to lawyers after trials - although usually just the winning side wants one, she said.

Only sometimes are there complaints or good-natured digs about the images as they appear in vibrant color on a piece of paper.

"Usually, I'll get it from the lawyers: 'Can you put more hair on my head? Can you make me look thinner?' " Bragoli joked Wednesday during a break in court proceedings. "I say 'sure, for a fee.' "

Kim O'Brien Root can be reached at 928-6473 or by email atkroot@dailypress.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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