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Court Artists Go Where Cameras Dare Not Tread

Times Staff Writer

Courtroom artists David Rose and Bill Robles recently had bad seats in a pint-sized courtroom. Their view was blocked by a pillar and by prosecutors sitting at a nearby table. While Rose anxiously shifted in his chair, craning for a better view, Robles sat quietly, occasionally giving the defendant he wanted to draw a long stare through his bifocals.

Robles seemed satisfied with the progress of his handiwork, but Rose, an elderly gent with bushy eyebrows, got impatient. Clutching a fistful of colored pencils and a pad of paper, he rose from his chair and leaned against the witness stand. There, he captured the essence of his prey--a strong jaw, a ruddy complexion and, perhaps, a hint of defiance--moments before the judge took the bench.

“I think they’ve got him,” an attorney in the courtroom concluded, surveying their finished products.

They always do.

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For nearly 20 years, artists here have drawn some of the biggest names ever to set foot in a Los Angeles courtroom: Sirhan Sirhan, Charles Manson, convicted Hillside Strangler killers Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, Patty Hearst, John Z. DeLorean, suspected Nazi war criminal Andrija Artukovic, Night Stalker suspect Richard Ramirez and accused Soviet spy Richard W. Miller.

Rose, Robles and Bill Lignante--who have nearly 100 years of art experience among them--have become familiar fixtures at Los Angeles federal court, where cameras and recording equipment of any kind are prohibited, and at some Superior Court trials in which limited media access has been imposed by a judge. They are considered by many to be the top three of half a dozen artists who draw for local TV stations.

Some may suppose that the use of artists is outdated, but news directors at Los Angeles TV stations--and on occasion, newspaper editors--find that artists’ sketches of court proceedings, otherwise inaccessible to any type of camera, add a dramatic flair to stories that may be unappealing visually.

Said one news director, who asked that his name not be used: “My cameramen will kill me for saying this, but guys like Lignante can really brighten a story that my people can’t do.”

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To that, the artists add a hearty assent.

“The camera sees everything, but captures nothing,” said Rose, a transplanted Bostonian who draws for Cable News Network. “It merely gets everything in the room. We learn to leave out the nonessential and emphasize what is important. We have to think as carefully as reporters do.”

“There should be more pictures and less talking heads on TV,” observed Lignante, a free-lancer who can command $330 for a day’s work for ABC News.

In court, speed is of the essence, and the artists can rough out a sketch in less than 15 minutes. “Sometimes,” Robles said, “you get only five minutes at an arraignment, and you have to do much of it from memory.”

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Different Techniques

How fast a drawing is finished depends on the artist and his technique. Rose, for example, is a nervous sort who uses colored pencils quickly to get an impression on paper. Robles, who draws on opaque paper, prefers to outline subjects first in black pen before filling in the colors with markers.

The artist’s role in chronicling current events dates far back. In American history, artists drew numerous dramatic moments for newspaper readers--among them the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln--before the invention of the Kodak box camera in 1889 signaled the start of a new era.

The television newsroom seems an unlikely place for the artist, but it was the medium’s continuing evolution that brought them to the tube.

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Lignante, who spent more than 30 years producing comic strips and was among the first artists to be employed by television stations on a regular basis, recalled proposing artwork of courtroom proceedings to the management of KTTV 18 years ago. Management put off a decision.

That changed with the June, 1968, assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador. Realizing that the subsequent trial of a slightly built man from the Middle East, Sirhan Sirhan, would be international news but difficult to tell without pictures, TV executives turned to Lignante and others for help.

‘Telling Stories With Pictures’

“I got calls from three stations asking me to cover the trial,” Lignante recalled. “What are events in a courtroom but a story that has to be told through pictures? And I’ve been telling stories with pictures all my life.”

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Sirhan Sirhan’s trial began a long string of cases for Rose, Robles and Lignante that continue to be lucrative.

Robles, a graduate of the Arts Center College of Design in Pasadena who also does commercial artwork, still rates the first trial he covered as the most memorable.

“Charles Manson. . .,” he said. “It had everything. He had this almost spiritual quality about him, believe it or not. And his physical appearance changed during the course of the trial--long hair and a beard, shorter hair, a goatee and the ‘50s look. I mean, I was there every day for nine months.”

Most Embarrassing Moment

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His most embarrassing moment also came during that 1970-71 trial.

He was juggling pencils, markers and paper pads on his knees in court one day when everything “crashed to the floor,” said Robles, who draws for CBS News, KCBS-TV and The Times. “The place is crowded. And everyone is looking at me.

“Manson then turns around and gives me that ‘Shame, shame on you’ hand gesture. . . .”

Lignante also remembered the Manson trial: “You never knew what he (Manson) was going to do. They (Manson and his co-defendants) had absolutely no respect for the court. Everyone was flabbergasted by the disrespect shown.”

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Some other memorable moments and observations from the artists:

- The 1976 Lee Marvin palimony case: “Marvin was very difficult to draw,” Robles said, “because his proportions were not ideal. You almost had to exaggerate some features in order to carry out the likeness.”

- The John DeLorean drug trial in 1984: “Cristina (DeLorean’s wife at the time) was very cooperative,” Rose said. “Toward the close of one day in court, I was drawing her, and she was wearing one of those high-style dresses with a definite pattern. I wasn’t done with the drawing, and I wouldn’t have remembered it enough to finish it. So I asked her, ‘Please, Cristina, would you wear the same dress tomorrow so I can finish my drawing?’ She said, ‘Yes,’ and she did.”

- The ongoing Night Stalker suspect’s preliminary hearing: "(Suspect Richard) Ramirez is pretty easy to draw,” Robles said. “He has good (bone) structure.”

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- Last year’s Andrija Artukovic extradition case: Lignante was the only artist allowed into the Terminal Island jail hospital for a special hearing. “It was very closed in, and the guys (court officials) kept telling me to move over,” he said. “But I had to stay in this position in order to draw him. He was in bed and had tubes coming out of him and everything. I had to reach back into all of those years of experience to do it.”

High Marks From Judges

While the artists get high marks from judges who must keep a careful eye to ensure that they do not affect the judicial process, federal jurists like U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. are not willing to expand TV’s role by allowing cameras in the courtroom.

“I just believe that the First Amendment and the Sixth Amendment (a defendant’s right to a fair trial) should not collide,” he said.

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Recalling that his first high-profile trial as a federal judge involved reputed members of organized crime, Hatter quipped: “I remember people asking me if I was frightened because my picture was being drawn. Frightened? No one would ever recognize me from those sketches.”


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