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Rendering Their Verdicts : With Photographers and Television Cameras Banned in Federal Courts, Artists Lend Perspective to King Trial


Mona Edwards was drawing the Rodney G. King civil rights trial to a close.

"What color was Hunt's suit?" she asked the man next to her Tuesday, rummaging through a pile of felt-tipped markers on the folding table in front of her.

"Dark blue," Bill Robles replied, smearing blue and black paint on his finger and studying the result.

Edwards and Robles are among six courtroom artists who for weeks worked furiously to illustrate what is taking place at a downtown Los Angeles federal courtroom where newspaper and television cameras are banned.

Their view of the trial is the only one that millions of television viewers have. And each of the six is giving the proceedings a unique look: Their sketching styles are as different as Rembrandt and Monet.

They agree on one thing, however. Thanks to television cameras, theirs is a dying art.

"People ask me to help them become a court artist," Bill Lignante said. "I say no way. There's no future in it. Paint houses instead."

Ironically, it is television that is has sent them day after day into U.S. District Judge John G. Davies' courtroom.

Lignante of Carlsbad is a former newspaper cartoonist ("The Phantom" and "Ozark Ike") who is sketching the trial for the ABC television network. Edwards of Hollywood is working for KABC-TV. The work of Robles of Pacific Palisades is being seen on the CBS television network, KCBS-TV, KCOP-TV and KMEX-TV as well as in The Times.

Artist Steve Werblun of Saugus is sketching for the NBC television network, CNN, KCAL-TV and KNBC-TV.

David Rose of Hollywood is working for the Tribune television network, KTLA-TV and Associated Press.

Mary Chaney of Los Angeles is working for KTTV-TV, Fox television, KVEA-TV and Agence France-Presse.

"It's like walking a tightrope without a net," said Chaney, who has spent eight years as a courtroom artist and draws in a bold, fluid style with vivid colors added in. By the end of the trial, she will have sketched nearly 300 courtroom scenes.

"Anyone who's 20 feet away like those in the courtroom is hard to draw. To capture (CHP Officer) Melanie Singer's tears on the witness stand and then look over and catch the defendants' reaction is difficult. Drawing is hard."

However, in the storeroom-size artists' work space a few floors beneath the King trial courtroom, Rose was making it look easy Tuesday.

He was drawing crisp, energetic-looking figures. He consulted a piece of cardboard holding pasted-up newspaper photos of defendant Theodore J. Briseno to make certain the sketch had the right look before coloring it in.

"When we go in there, we're not only artists, but reporters too," said Rose, who was working as an NBC television designer 20 years ago when he was unexpectedly dispatched to sketch the Pentagon Papers trial. "We always have to keep in mind what's happening and watch for the unexpected."

Robles' sketches, such as the one Tuesday of prosecution witness Matthew Hunt, a deputy Los Angeles police chief, are full of detail, but they also have a fluid look to them.

"I don't like them to look labored," he said as he used a razor blade to scratch an unwanted line off the velum he draws on. He does not lightly pencil anything in before inking his sketches because "I want them to have a spontaneous look."

Edwards also wants the characters to have a lively look in the seven drawings she does each day. She figures that her previous work as a fashion illustrator helps bring them to life.

"Mine have a fast-sketch feel to them, more of a feeling of action," she said. "I leave the background out. I focus on people, body movement."

Werblun's heavily detailed drawings do not leave out the background, or much else. He includes depictions of the electronic equipment used to replay the now-famous King beating tape as well a witnesses and defendants.

"I approach it differently," Werblun said. "The only liberties I take with my drawings are in composition--I may move the attorney closer to the witness."

Lignante's sketches often resemble paintings. Instead of using splotches of colors like his colleagues, he completely colors the five drawings he does each day. The lines forming the judge's bench do not have a freehand look--they're straight.

"That's because of my background as an illustrator," said Lignante, who for 25 years has covered major trials across the country for his television network.

The artists earn about $400 a day--although Werblun said he made about $2,400 the day 10 media outlets paid to use his drawings on their news shows.

The six say they have illustrated some of the biggest trials of the past--including the Manson family, Patty Hearst, the Hillside Strangler, Sirhan Sirhan and the Lee Marvin palimony case.

But these days, big federal court trials don't come along every day. And since state courts have opened their doors to cameras, court artists say they have gotten fewer and fewer calls.

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