Murder, She Drew
The life of a courtroom artist requires speed and precision. You have to prepare yourself for the dramatic moments: a witness taking the stand, a lawyer pleading for justice, a defendant facing the judge for the verdict. The most telling gestures could also be the smallest, and it is the job of the courtroom artist to capture them.
Marilyn Church has attended, and illustrated, some of New York City’s most high-profile trials of the past 40 years. She’s sat before murderers, mobsters, and celebrities at their worst. She’s witnessed grieving families and communities rallying for justice. With her pad of pastel paper, water-soluble crayons, and colored pencils, she can sketch out a moment in a real-life legal drama that a TV camera would miss. But Church considers herself a journalist, first and foremost—and as a reporter, she must remain fast, accurate, and objective.
We asked Church what it feels like to lock eyes with a serial killer, about her impressions of the Central Park Five trial, how decades of courtroom drawing has influenced her own art practice, and what it’s really like to face down mobsters like John Gotti—and Donald Trump.
How and when did you begin working as a courtroom artist?
It was 1974. I had been doing fashion illustration, which is really based on drawing gestures and being very quick to get everything down.
I had a lawyer friend who was covering a big case, and he told me that there were these artists, hired by television channels, sitting there drawing in court. I was not really a television watcher, so this was a revelation to me. So I turned on a news program and it was the first time I saw a courtroom drawing on television. I was so thrilled to see it, because I can remember seeing drawings in Life magazine when I was young, courtroom drawings, and thinking, God, how exciting. An artist can sit in court, draw some life, and watch these amazing cases happen.
So, right away I just thought, I can do that. I know I can do that. I showed up in court the next day.
When you’re working as a courtroom artist, are you required to make images of certain people or things?
It used to be about four or five sketches a day were required by the television networks—I was on contract with ABC until 1993. It was standard in that there would be an overall shot, the whole courtroom scene, and then there would be close-ups of the defendant, the witness, and the lawyers addressing the juries. Artists sometimes compete with each other for the best scenes, although there is hardly time to think about it. The deadline is ever-pressing.
Sometimes I would be sitting close enough to an ABC reporter and they would signal to me, “I really need that mother in the audience crying, listening to her son being found guilty.” Or, “The next witness is going to be the one I’m really waiting for.” And I would focus my drawing on that person.
You attended the trial of David Berkowitz—the “Son of Sam” serial killer—in 1978.
That was certainly one of the most memorable because the city was terrorized at that time. It was all happening in Queens, where I had grown up. I was very afraid to walk alone at night in the city. Young women with long, dark hair were being targeted by him, for some reason.
The day the arrest broke in the news, the phones were ringing. [That was when] I was on a contract with ABC News, and I was always on call for whatever case broke. So I didn’t have much time to read about him beforehand.
When Berkowitz was caught, he was obviously deranged, so the hearings had to be held in a hospital, where he was being detained and questioned by a psychiatrist.
The hearing was in a small room in the hospital. Since it wasn’t an ordinary courtroom, I ended up sitting really close to David Berkowitz—about three feet away. And I just found him staring at me, which was totally discombobulating. Terrorizing to me, you know? Because at that time I looked so much like one of his victims: I was their same age, in my early 30s, and I had long, dark hair. His eyes were just so ... you know they just pierced into you, and I really found it paralyzing trying to draw. I was so afraid of looking at him.
You say that, in this instance, you were sitting quite close to your subject, but I’ve read that you’ve also brought binoculars into the courtroom.
In the case of John Gotti’s trials in the early 1990s, he was far away from me in the courtroom. It was really hard to capture his detailed expressions, so I used sports binoculars that hook on like eyeglasses.
In your drawings of Gotti, his smirky expression really animates the whole image.
That’s how he looked, smirky. Smirky, but evil-looking. His eyes were very determined. He was also very aware of his audience—very much trying to connect and make an impression on people. There were certain trials where he was out on bail, and he would talk easily with all the reporters and kind of hold court. Other than that, he tried to do most things with his eyes, getting people’s attention.
It often appears he’s turning around, trying to talk to you or the other artists.
Not talk so much—because he wasn’t allowed to—but signal. He knew which artist and which reporter were covering the trial for every channel. He signaled that he didn’t like the way I was drawing him. He gestured to tell me that he didn’t like the way I was portraying his neck.
Do you find that people on trial are interested in watching the artists as they work in the courtroom?
Some defendants are very interested in how you’re portraying them, and others take little notice, or seem not to. Their lives are on the line. It’s not their first priority.
But at the Gotti trial, he and his fellow mobsters were all sitting in the opposite row from the artists. They would check out the drawings and make comments about them, like trying to get you to lower the hairline: “Can’t you make him look better?”
Have defendants or family members been hostile to you while you were working?
There was a trial I did in Manhattan Criminal Court in 1983, where there was a young man who was very hostile and arrogant in his demeanor toward the whole court, which I kind of captured in the drawing. Frequently it used to be that the TV crew was waiting outside to shoot the drawing when the hearing was over, and I’d be in the hallway putting on a few finishing touches before I ran down to get it shot.
Suddenly the defendant’s family and friends surrounded me in the hallway and said, really hostile, “Who’s that supposed to be? What do you think you’re doing?” I mean, really scaring the life out of me. I don’t know what would have happened actually, but luckily, because the hall was empty, this court officer just happened to come miraculously walking by and dispersed them.
How did you usually try to react to family members who approached you?
Well, I did the best I could. I mean, I just silently listened to them if they were in court and said, “I have to get back to work.” I just tried to avoid it as much as I could; it didn’t happen that often.
You covered several cases that really gripped New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, like the “Preppy Killer” Robert Chambers, and the Central Park Five.
I lived very close to Central Park, and I also had a son the same age as Robert Chambers when it happened.
You have described Chambers as one of the more intriguing people you’ve drawn in your career.
Well, he was classically handsome, but I just found his face so blank and cold, without any human emotion. Human emotion never crossed his face the whole trial. I saw no fear. I saw no sympathy. I saw no guilt. That’s hard to draw, in a way. All I could do was exaggerate how pale and lifeless this handsome man was.
Is that rare, for someone who you’re drawing to look so lifeless in the courtroom?
Yes. It’s totally rare. He pled guilty, but even that was without any emotion.
You were also in attendance for the Central Park jogger trial. This was one of the instances where you showed the jury reaction in your drawings—in this case, to the graphic photographs of the jogger’s injuries.
I guess the magnitude of the crime had to be brought home because the prosecution had so little to convict these kids on—other than their confessions, which certainly looked like they were forced. They were held for so long without parents or lawyers being present. And they’re young, vulnerable kids, so those confessions, they were desperate to find some corroborations somewhere, which there really weren’t.
It was heartbreaking watching the jogger [Trisha Meili] climb onto the stand, and to see how brave she was. She had no memory at all of anything. Nothing she said changed anything. The case hinged on images of her injuries and the fact that there she was, being brave and broken.
You also really focused a lot on the audience in this trial, especially the family members of the Central Park Five, who were holding up signs of protest in the courtroom. Would relatives sometimes try to persuade you to portray the defendants more sympathetically?
I felt so terrible for that mother who believed her son was innocent. The relatives would see my drawings and they would say, “Oh, please, my son is innocent, so don’t show him that way.” But to tell you the truth, in the courtroom, the kids really were angry and arrogant and annoyed. They were turning around and staring at people and covering their faces, making it difficult to draw them. I would have had to fabricate my drawing to not show them the way I saw them.
They were adolescents without family or lawyers to counsel them. They were angry, frustrated, and acting out—all understandably. But they were not choir boys. There was sworn testimony that they had taunted and injured other runners the same night in question. But they were not guilty of the horrendous assault on the jogger, who was left for dead. I think nothing can make up for the horrible and unjust way they were treated.
You also encountered Hollywood celebrities in the courtroom, often during divorce proceedings—like that between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow.
Woody was a difficult subject because he also showed very little reaction in this trial, whereas Mia had lots of emotion on her face—lots of anger and sadness, lots of expression. This deeply affected her. And I have to say my sympathies were with her.
And you were present for Martha Stewart’s 2004 trial, too, when she was convicted for obstruction of justice.
The last thing Martha Stewart wanted was anybody looking at her; she made sure that she had her hair flipped on her face all the time. It was so hard to draw her. It’s also hard to draw a beautiful woman in general, because everything is perfect; nothing really stands out. You rely on picking out the feature that’s most prominent or most characterized.
You were in the courtroom with Donald Trump a couple of times—for the 1986 USFL v. NFL case, and also his 1992 divorce from Ivana. Can you tell me a little bit about the experience of drawing Trump?
My impression was that he was controlling and full of himself. He takes over the room, and Ivana was shrinking in his presence. Although I’m sure she’s a very strong woman—that was my impression.
Also, it seemed like Trump could get away with anything. He was a bully back then, it was obvious. Not so much at the football trial, but at the divorce hearing. He draws the attention of the room—that’s what I wanted to get across.
Are there any trials that you’ve illustrated over the past decade or so that have really stuck with you?
I haven’t been doing as many trials as I used to, because I live for four months of the year out in Amagansett, New York. It’s all about being on call. These are last-minute breaking cases a lot of times. You have to commit to a long time to be available every day to cover a trial like El Chapo’s [in New York]. I did not do Chapo for that reason. It doesn’t fit into the lifestyle I want now. My painting is now very important to me. Some of these cases really live with me, so I wanted to paint them.
Is it hard to be objective as a courtroom artist?
I’m New York Times-trained and trying absolutely to be objective as a reporter. It is really important not to make up things that aren’t there. However, I think it’s impossible to do a good piece of art and not be selective with what you’re showing. You can’t show everything. So in that way, you can’t be completely objective. If you’re trying to tell the gist of what happened that day in court, you can’t put in every fleeting emotion or gesture.
Are you able to put more of yourself and your opinion into your paintings?
You’re trying to be fair-minded as a journalist. So all these kinds of scenes that I couldn’t exactly paint the way I wanted to [when I was in court], because it has to tell another kind of a story, I can put those kinds of scenes together in a painting.