Friday, May 09, 2008

Behind the Courtroom Scenes

This past week has been a stinker. I've been going non-stop from early morning to rack time and haven't been able to post any blogs ... or do laundry, or cut the grass, clean the car, or almost anything else. So today I'm in catch-up mode.

I've got some more courtroom drawings to post, but I've gotta get 'em out of my camera first, so they'll come later. Thought I'd share some impressions from a week in the courtroom.

First, it's not at all like Law & Order. No big surprises, no theatrics, no stomping around, no yelling (well, one time when there was an old guy who was hard of hearing, so the attorneys literally had to stand next to him and slowly shout their questions ... quite amusing, but not L&O stuff). All the attorneys for both sides know pretty much exactly what the others are going to ask. It's really a matter of "here's one side, here's the other, now you in the jury make your decision".

Another discovery for me: big issues can hide in small comments. Again, in L&O, key facts are emphasized with much over-acting. In real life, they can come out in just a bland reading of a list. The prosecutors had a witness on the stand on Day 2 asking him what various markings on a list meant, and in a quiet matter-of-fact tone he implicated two local sheriffs in taking money from illegal video poker machine operations. And neither set of attorneys made a big deal of it. Meanwhile, I'm sitting back there in the second row thinking "wait a minute, did I just hear what I think I heard??" You really have to pay attention - you snooze, you lose.

Our judge, Thomas Ellis is quite interesting. See his Wikipedia entry here. He's a high-profile guy brought in from the DC area just for this trial. He took charge of his courtroom from the very first minute. Judge Ellis much more intrusive into questioning than anything you've seen on TV (with the exception of Judge Judy, who's just damn intrusive, period). If he doesn't like an attorney's question, he'll jump in and rephrase it, or ask his own questions if the attorney isn't covering something he thinks should be covered. Sometimes he looks like he's asleep, then all of a sudden he'll pounce on a comment or question from an attorney. The "sleep" look is deceptive: he's really concentrating his rather formidable intellect on the matter at hand. But he's also interested in getting a fair trial. We already know his thoughts on whether the defendents are guilty or innocent, but he goes to extreme lengths to make sure the jury doesn't. All his personal opinions are discussed outside the jury's hearing.

One of the things that this case has pounded home to me is just how fair our legal system is. Yes, it's big and convoluted, but it's a system of laws and court decisions that have been carefully crafted over two hundred years, mostly by people who put sound decisions above all. There aren't any arbitrary decisions allowed ... if anything is questionable, it can be appealed or the case can even be retried, and none of them want that. Nope, our system is, especially in this particular case, a good system being correctly used by some very smart and dedicated people.

As a courtroom artist, I'm just a small wienie in this story. I get there a few minutes early and take a seat in the second row on the right side (the first row is reserved for attorneys and others involved). This way I can get the best look at the witness stand, judge, and defense attorneys. As for the prosecutors, it seems no matter where I sit, all I get are their backs, so I try to work on them during breaks.

I only take in a small drawing board, a small stack of hot-pressed watercolor paper, my drawing tools (a mechanical pencil with a very soft lead and also a kneaded eraser), and a small sketch pad for notes. During the proceedings, I work on getting a decent drawing. I try to get the best likeness possible, while also trying to breathe some life into the figures by tilting the heads, having them look this way or that, lean on an arm, whatever. Sometimes I'll just focus on one large figure, sometimes two or three. When I do a "scene", I'll compress the key elements. For example, in reality the witness stand is way over to the right while the defense table is way over to the left, the judge is in the middle, and the flag is way back in the background. When I draw them, I'll cram 'em all together. This is the only way to get all the important stuff recognizably visible.

At 11 a.m., I leave, even if something's still happening. I head out to the TV station's van and break out my watercolors. I'll normally have two or three drawings going, and will work fast on getting the color laid in. In the past, I've used pastels (way too messy and complicated) and watercolor pencils (too uncontrollable and deceptive). Regular watercolors work best for me. I need to have the drawings done by 11:30 so that the cameraman can shoot them and then splice all the images together with the reporter's narrative for the noon news show. Then it's back into the courtroom until the lunch break. In the afternoon, it's the same routine, and I have to get back to the TV van about 4 pm so we can be ready for the evening news.

The reporter and I work closely on what we're going to cover. Not every witness needs to be mentioned; sometimes we don't know that until after the fact. So I have to draw every witness and then we determine which ones to focus on back at the van. We also compare notes on what we heard to make sure we're getting our story straight.

I discovered last night that one of our cameramen, Joe Avery, has his own blog, which you can see here. He wrote about his experience of working with me and included a couple of photos. Well, let me tell you, these cameramen are an amazing bunch. They don't just stand around and shoot video all day. They're the ones that put the piece together. The reporter writes up the story and records the audio. The cameraman takes the audio and matches up all the different video shots to the appropriate sections. There may be a dozen different shots. So he's playing his equipment like a madman, swapping tapes in and out, running the story over and over, pounding buttons, and looking remarkably like a mad scientist in a Grade B movie dungeon. Except he's for real. Once the story's done, he and the reporter get ready and do the live stand-up intro and closing for the evening news. Cool stuff, a lot of fun to watch, and even more fun to be a part of.

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