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Courtroom Sketch Artist Develops Journalistic Eye

August 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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After 27 years of witnessing significant legal proceedings, courtroom sketch artist William Hennessy said he now considers himself a journalist as well.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, a unique take on some of the most important legal skirmishes of our times. It comes from courtroom sketch artist William Hennessy. His new book is called “All Rise.” It focuses on events he’s covered for the NewsHour and other broadcasters over his 27-year career.

WILLIAM HENNESSY, courtroom sketch artist: I decided to write this book for a number of reasons, but one of them is also because I put a lot into my work. There’s a lot more to it, and a three-second airing in an evening news piece doesn’t always do it justice.

I understand my role very well. Ideally, my clients would have a camera in there, in their minds. I don’t necessarily agree, but I do understand what they want from me, and so I provide them with the visuals they need to tell the story, and not just the visuals that you expect, but I try to delve deeper. I look for the details. I look for something that’ll give it more. I find myself as much a journalist, in that regard, looking for that special angle on the visual that will help them that much more.

You get your proper vantage point and capture the critical characters — obviously, the defendant and the lawyers involved, and the judge, and their interactions — and at critical moments, you start another sketch, and it’s sort of dictated by the events that occur in front of you.

Some of the most incredible cases I’ve covered, the most memorable are not necessarily, you know, big headline grabbers, but just — the human drama involved, the courtroom and the events that take place in there are sometimes the most compelling things, and it’s hard to stay focused and not get caught up in the emotion of it.

One I’ll never forget was a father whose son was kidnapped out of his bedroom as he slept. And his emotion, which affects me even as I talk about it, that he wasn’t there for his son, that it happened right, you know, near him.

One of the things that’s critical is to always be at the ready. I had an escapee who came barreling down an escalator with court security in hot pursuit. He was very close to the door, and a woman stepped out of the crowd, and put out her leg and tripped him. And that became the story of the day more than the case that we even came to cover.

This particular case — sketch was a very powerful development, just prior to the case beginning, where the brother of a defendant collapsed, actually had a heart attack, and I quickly sketched that. And you could see the emotion and just the turmoil of the events as they occurred in front of me.

Drawing in the Supreme Court is very different from a regular courtroom. They’re a panel of nine justices. It’s a very awe-inspiring event, even after 27 years of doing it. To some degree, it’s predictable, but you’re always prepared, as usual, with — prepared for what’s unexpected.

The Bush v. Gore argument was not unlike most of the arguments I’ve covered. The attorneys at the podium discussed the matter with the justices, and that’s what I documented from that case. When we went to the press room after the argument that I sort of was struck by the contrast between that organized, august hall and the debate over the issues, and the sort of chaos that ensued in the press room as they waited for the decision, and talked on the phone, and tried to figure out how the story was going to play out and how the case was going to be resolved.

About 10 years ago, as I overlooked the U.S. Senate during the impeachment of President Clinton, and I — just looking down on this chamber and the whole events taking place in front of me, I really felt like this has been an amazing ride. I really need to write all this stuff down.

The C-SPAN cameras weren’t covering certain parts of it that really were very compelling in telling the story, and that was the negotiations between the senators and the two parties over how this vote was going to go and how the whole proceeding was going to take place.

And examples of that are depicted here on the outside edge here where these senators were sort of in each other’s face arguing. Here we had two of Clinton’s lead attorneys, David Kendall and Charles Ruff, discussing strategy. Here are the two sides even, where we had Daschle and Trent Lott debating, discussing.

I certainly came into this as an artist, but I think I’ve had a unique opportunity to learn journalism from the people who actually — who I worked with, both the photojournalists and the written journalists. They’ve helped me understand my purpose and my responsibility in, you know, telling the story accurately and truthfully, honestly, and responsibly as you can.