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Mary Chaney, 77; Freelance Courtroom Artist Covered Many High-Profile Trials

October 16, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Mary Chaney, a Los Angeles courtroom artist whose meticulous and delicate drawing style provided local and national television viewers with telling glimpses of high-profile trials, including that of "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, has died. She was 77.

Chaney died Wednesday of cancer at her home in Los Angeles, according to her family.

A commercial illustrator, Chaney launched her freelance career in the courtroom in the mid-1980s. Over the years, she provided sketches for ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox, KTTV, Court TV and other news outlets.

"She loved the hustle of the courtroom and meeting the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and also working with the news reporters," said her daughter, Lark Ireland-Snouffer.

Among the better-known cases Chaney covered were the 1992 trial of the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney G. King, the O.J. Simpson civil trial and the Richard Miller FBI espionage trial.

"It's like walking a tightrope without a net," Chaney told The Times during the King trial in 1993. "Anyone who's 20 feet away like those in the courtroom is hard to draw." By the end of the trial, Chaney figured she would have sketched nearly 300 courtroom scenes.

"She was always very conscientious and loved her craft, as we all do," said courtroom artist Bill Robles, a longtime friend.

Mona Shafer Edwards, another courtroom artist, said her friend Chaney "was incredibly disciplined and had a true passion for art and for drawing."

"We had a very different way of working," she said. Chaney's courtroom drawings were "thoughtful, meticulous, delicate, well-planned," Edwards said. "She'd look five times from the paper to the object before she'd put a line down."

Chaney's vibrant and vivid courtroom sketches, which bore broad strokes from her colored markers, have been published in several law reviews. Her sketches of the King trial were exhibited at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and her drawings of a trial over Thai garment workers are included in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

In 1998, a number of her courtroom drawings were among those of Southern California courtroom artists displayed at the Lankershim Arts Center.

In a review of the display for The Times, Josef Woodard took note of Chaney's drawing of Fleiss shedding a tear when she was convicted of three counts of pandering in 1994.

The various artists' drawings on display, Woodard wrote, "don't necessarily impress with their artistic skill, by any conventional standard. The beauty is in the immediacy and what it represents. This is pragmatic art, concerned with accurate reportage but also with fast production, with working on the fly. At the same time, these artists are seeking to capture something essential, snatched from a real life."

Spending days and weeks sitting close to some defendants and listening to sometimes gruesome testimony occasionally took a toll on Chaney, particularly in the case of serial killer Ramirez, who was convicted of 13 counts of murder and sentenced to die in the gas chamber.

"You could never get over the testimony of Judith Arnold, who found her parents. Or her sister that identified the mother's wedding ring," Chaney told The Times in 1989. "Or even the policemen -- policemen who have seen too much. Too many murders. There's just something in their eyes, in their expression."

Chaney, who made more than 100 sketches of Ramirez for television news programs, remembered having nightmares in which she awakened with a chill and saw the Night Stalker at her bedside.

"He'd just be standing there," she said. Usually, nothing happened, she said, "but in another nightmare, he did kill me."

The guilty verdict, Chaney said, was a relief.

Born in Los Angeles in 1927, Chaney graduated from Otis Art Institute, Chouinard Art Institute and Loyola Marymount University.

While raising her family in Huntington Park in the 1950s through the mid '70s, she converted her large laundry room into an art studio, where she painted, sculpted and did sketches of her children and neighbors. She also gave painting lessons to adults.

Chaney, who lived more than 20 years on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles and could walk to work in the nearby courthouses, had a passion for the homeless and street people.

She titled a series of her drawings of the homeless, which were exhibited in downtown Los Angeles in the '80s, "A Tender Dignity."

In addition to her daughter Lark, Chaney is survived by her other children, Robert Waterman-Reilly, Philip Reilly, Annie Cook, Kathleen Snyder, Paul Reilly and Rachel Reilly; four grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and her brother, Donald Chaney.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Maryknoll Japanese Catholic Center, 234 S. Hewitt St., in Los Angeles.

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