Courtroom confidential

Renowned court artist Marilyn Church talks about life behind the US’s most iconic legal dramas

When the Mafia mobster John J. Gotti went on trial in New York for murder and other charges in 1992, he probably knew he would die in jail. But as he sat in court, day after day, one of the things that preoccupied the Gambino crime boss was his receding hairline.

Marilyn Church was the courtroom sketch artist assigned to cover the trial for ABC and her visual dispatches captured Gotti’s hair in all of its hoary, fading glory, along with the Don’s trademark smirk and sodden orange complexion. Gotti was less than flattered and, during a break in proceedings, a couple of his mobster minions approached her inside the court to pass on his displeasure.

“They told me I was drawing his hairline too far back,” said Church, most of whose portfolio has just been acquired by the US Library of Congress, in a very rare instance of a court artist’s work being recognised in this way. But Gotti had yet another complaint. “One day, he pointed me out in court and then pointed to his neck and shook his head, meaning, I think, ‘You’re drawing me looking too fat and jowly. Cut it out,’” said Church. “Of course, it could also have been interpreted as him dragging a finger across his neck. After that, my husband said, ‘You walk a few feet ahead of me.’”

Church, who is in her sixties, has been a courtroom artist in New York City since 1973. She has sketched many of the town’s most notorious legal dramas, including those of John Lennon’s killer Mark David Chapman; the so-called subway vigilante Bernard Goetz; the rapper Tupac Shakur’s sexual abuse trial; Martha Stewart; “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz; Sid Vicious; Bernie Madoff, and the men responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. With cameras barred from these proceedings, Church’s images are the sole visual record, a rare glimpse of some of the US’s most iconic defendants, and occasionally witnesses, in their more inauspicious, sometimes tragic, moments.

Church showed me some of her archive in her studio at her Upper West Side apartment, a few days before it was handed over for shipping to Washington DC and the Library of Congress. There is Woody Allen in khakis and tweed coat, appearing “schluppy and dishevelled”, as Mia Farrow sues for custody of their three children. Martha Stewart, on trial for securities fraud, is caught holding her nose in the air, “as if she was above it all”. Chapman, carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye, looks pudgy and ordinary.

There are thousands of others; many of them accomplished, finished works of art, some of them rough pieces clearly done on-the-fly. Working under deadline, Church often has to tear out of the courtroom so her coloured pencil and crayon drawings can be photographed and zapped to the newsroom as editors bay for her work. “If newsrooms had another way, they wouldn’t use artists,” she said later, over lunch at Forlini’s, an Italian restaurant behind the Manhattan Criminal Court. “And I don’t think we would miss them.”

Sara W. Duke, the Library of Congress curator handling the Church collection, might disagree. The library intends to make available online approximately 4,300 of Church’s sketches – virtually her entire catalogue – that it has acquired for an undisclosed sum. Duke said she is as impressed by the quality of Church’s drawings as by the huge number of historic trials she covered.

“She’s got a nice line in her work,” said Duke, “and her portraits of individuals, of their facial expressions, convey a vulnerability.” Gotti is a good example: “He’s a tough guy, so he was trying to exude confidence. But in Marilyn’s pictures he seems fragile. He was clearly looking at her.”

Church grew up in Flushing, Queens, and began drawing as soon as she could hold a pencil. Although her parents pushed her in other directions, she studied fine art at the Pratt Institute and went on to work as a fashion illustrator for Vogue Patterns and 17 Magazine. She stumbled into courtroom art after a friend told her there was good money in it. Soon, she was getting assignments for The New York Times, Associated Press, CBS News and others. At first, she was reluctant to leave fine art behind. But the strange pull of the courtroom, combined with “the freedom not to rethink” art, she said, clinched the deal. “Labouring over fine art, always wishing it were better, is anxiety-producing. I don’t have that luxury in the courtroom.”

It is that mastery of both artistic technique and inhospitable environment that marks out her work, said Frank Lind, professor of painting and drawing at the Pratt Institute (he has never met Church). “The constraints she’s working with are extreme – deadlines, bad lighting – but they’re a part of the story. It’s one thing to sit in your studio and take your time. But to work in a courtroom like Marilyn does is a real performance,” he said. “You can tell it’s one of her drawings. The other people in the environment look like they’re part of the picture, too. You’re not just getting a generic lawyer.”

Besides, Church discovered something quite quickly: “The courtroom turns me on,” she said. “But it’s such an exciting place for an artist to be. There’s an adrenaline rush: am I going to be able to pull this off? No matter how much you can’t see, or how dark it is, you have the challenge of making a beautiful drawing. You can’t beat it. Plus, I’m watching the best dramas in town.”

Sometimes things get too dramatic, however. In addition to mobsters, Church has been approached by menacing relatives who felt she had portrayed their loved ones unflatteringly. “I walk away and hope there’s a way out. So far, there’s always been one,” she said.

Nor was Gotti her only contact with the New York underworld. In the 1980s, she tagged along to Forlini’s with a lawyer, who turned out to be having lunch with a lieutenant of Harlem drug lord Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. The gang lieutenant asked Church out on a date. “What do you say to that?” she said, still sounding startled. “We sat right over there. It made me really nervous – I was scared to say no, but I didn’t say yes.”

An earlier run-in with David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” serial killer convicted of six New York City murders in the 1970s, also left her shaken. At a sanity hearing prior to the trial, Church was sitting just feet away from where Berkowitz sat, glaring at her. At the time, she had long dark hair, like many of his victims. “That’s the only time I really froze,” she said.

Nonetheless, a sketch of Berkowitz is one of about 50 she kept from the Library of Congress sale. She also held on to one of Gotti and of Madoff, as well as sketches signed by J.K. Rowling after a copyright infringement case and Norman Mailer, who was a daily spectator at the second Jack Henry Abbott trial in 1982. (Mailer had earlier championed Abbott’s writing; he was arrested for killing a man in a row about a restroom soon after his release from jail for earlier crimes.) The Berkowitz is her favourite, however, and it hangs in the foyer of her apartment. It depicts Berkowitz being subdued by court officers as he suffers a psychotic episode. “The demons were talking to him and he was screaming and flailing,” Church said. “It was an impossible moment to capture. I don’t know how I did it.”

The trial that caused her, literally, nightmares was that of Robert E. Chambers. Known as “the Preppy Killer”, Chambers was convicted of strangling a friend to death in 1986. “He showed no remorse, nothing,” said Church. “There was no change of expression, nothing humane about him. He was so handsome, but so creepy-looking.”

Still, over the years she has built up some resilience to the horrific details that emerge in court, such as those of the recent Petit trial in Connecticut, in which two ex-cons were found guilty of torturing and murdering a mother and her two daughters in their own home.

“I have to block a lot out to do good work,” said Church, “but I also want some of it in. I want the tension and emotion of what’s happening in the drawing. After all, I’m doing all of this from life.”

In the late 1990s, as newspapers and television stations began reining in their budgets, courtroom sketch work dried up. Today there are far fewer artists and much less work to go around. But Church’s reputation as one of the pre-eminent courtroom artists of the past quarter-century has made things a little easier for her. “I get the good cases,” she admitted.

Church has no plans to retire – “I can’t give it up. I know I probably should, but I can’t. I’m addicted.” Indeed, last month she was in court to cover the pre-trial hearing of Viktor Bout, the extradited former Russian air force officer being held on charges of selling weapons to terrorists.

“Certain people might find it very boring work,” she said. “But believe me, what happens in court is far stranger than anything you’ll read in a book.”

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