Who Makes All Those Court Drawings? Why Do We Have Them?

Aggie Kenny’s illustration of the Iran-Contra Trial

You know those neat sketches of trials you see pop up every now and then in the media? While different artists render the inside of a courtroom differently, the imagery is invoked… pretty often in popular culture when things are legally-adjacent. But nowadays we have cameras, and pressing a button is a lot less effort than doing a whole art piece—ignoring that courtroom sketches probably make trials seem a lot more interesting than it really is. But who actually makes all those court drawings? Why do we have them?

Court Illustrators

A concept, the people who illustrate inside courtrooms are called court illustrators. You don’t need any kind of specialized education to become one. That might, at first, seem a little odd. After all, stenographers normally have specialized training in specifically court stenography. Stenographers are the people who madly clack away at a keyboard (actually a specialized keyboard called a stenotype) to create a transcript of what happens, by the way. 

So if typing quickly and accurately for a courtroom has a specific kind of court-specific qualification, you might think the same applies for court-specific art. That’s not actually the case, for one key reason. Courtroom illustrators don’t work for the government. They’re not actually affiliated with the legal system at all. 

Court illustrators work for the media, like news networks. In the US, courtroom artists have been kicking around since the 19th century. Predating the widespread use of photography in journalism, these sketches were turned into engravings so they could be printed for mass-production. Nowadays, despite not working on behalf of the government, court sketches are still sometimes acquired by public institutions for archiving. 

Cameras and Court

So cameras nowadays are a lot better than they were back in the day. Some trials are livestreamed (look you can watch some here), and everyone who has tuned into the nightly news has probably seen recorded footage of trials. Many high profile cases are televised, like the O.J. Simpson trial (we’ll talk more about it in a second). More recently, you’ve probably seen footage of Alex Jones caught lying in cross examination and footage from the defamation suit between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard.

Clearly then, we’re physically capable of getting cameras into courtrooms. But even those who know little about the legal system know how astoundingly archaic it is—and how pathetically slow it is at adapting to new technologies. That brings us to how TV and cameras changed the contemporary courtroom. It also brings us to the O.J. Simpson trial. 

O.J. Simpson

When Simpson was arrested in 1994, the Supreme Court had only just ruled that individual states could even have laws about cameras in criminal court. The ruling was handed down in Chandler v. Florida (1981). If you have memories from the Simpson trial, you remember how much it changed television and pop culture forever. If you don’t, the fact that 57% of America had tuned in to watch the verdict’s reading on October 3rd, 1995 should settle it. 

Anyway, the point is the Simpson trial’s narrative was followed more closely than contemporary soap operas and that presented a very lucrative avenue for television—and a new minefield for judges. Lance Ito, the presider over The People v. Simpson, was initially critical of having news cameras present for trial; funnily enough the hearing in which he decided cameras could be present was also televised. The Simpson trial lined up with the creation of Court TV, which basically turned the trial into a soap opera. Complete with cut-ins and commentary that positioned you, the viewer, as a kind of “13th juror.”

The narrative during the Simpson trial in pop culture quickly went from a murder trial, to one of domestic abuse, and culminating in a heated debate about race relations in America. It doesn’t take a genius to see how that (combined with having more than half the country watching you) affects the behavior of not only the presiding judge, but lawyers, jurors, and the witnesses testifying on the stand. 

Having your trial turned into, essentially, a TV show presents a conundrum for judges. You could be the judge, and we all know how big judge egos are. Sometimes they attack lawyers for threatening their egos. Literally. Yes, of course it was Florida. But it’s also compromising position to put oneself in, and no judge wanted to be “Ito’d” for the world to see. 

Instead, draw

We could talk for hours about the longtail ripples of the Simpson trial, but the point today is it provided reasons for judges to not want cameras inside their courtrooms. Because news outlets can’t always record what’s happening in the courtroom, they hire sketch artists to essentially do the same thing for them. So while the prevalence of court illustrators has certainly declined since the 90s, that’s why they haven’t been rendered completely obsolete by cameras. 

Even then, for high profile cases, illustrators may be prevented from capturing certain parts of the trial in their art. Typically these restrictions are reserved for sexual abuse victims, children, jurors, and witnesses in cases with a lot of media cut-through. Some jurisdictions prevent artists from drawing during the proceedings, so they have to sketch from memory after things conclude. This is how it works in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. 

See if you recognize your court art here.