At high-profile legal trials, photographers are sometimes not allowed in the courtroom. That’s where courtroom sketch artists come in.
An exhibit currently at the Newport Beach Public Library features the work of three of the country’s best courtroom sketch artists.
Bill Robles can count himself in that group.
Go through the 10 large sliding drawers in his office and you are literally paging through history — or at least the history of mostly rich people accused of behaving extremely badly.
“A lot of people look guilty,” says the veteran of hundreds of trials. “But they turn out not to be.”
Robles has spent the past 44 years quickly drawing the players in America’s most high profile court cases. And it’s his illustrations that allow TV viewers to “see” what is happening when cameras aren’t allowed.
His first gig was the nine-and-a-half month trail of Charles Manson.
“Manson was a little agitated during the proceedings and all of a sudden — bingo! — he leaped up and lunged at the judge with a pencil and his flip-flops on, and the bailiff tackled him in mid-air," Robles recalls. "I had to freeze that moment, so the artists all got together to compare notes, then we all did our thing."
Still a relative rookie, he’d use his lunch hour on the Manson trial to finish drawings for a children’s book.
“Manson had a compassionate look about him. I guess I would have been a family member under the right circumstances,” Robles jokes.
He works on high-quality velum paper with pens and markers. A quick sketch can be done in 20 minutes, and he’s paid by the day for each network that wants his work. It is fast and sometimes difficult, especially when you combine a long trial with a high profile defendant such as Michael Jackson.
“Everyday he’d show up in a different outfit," says Robles, "and we had to see what he was wearing."
With hundreds and hundreds of trials on his résumé, Robles' anecdotes move faster than his pen.
Biggest media circus? Actress Lindsay Lohan.
“I remember coming out of the airport courthouse with the drawing and [as] I was carrying it upside down and walking to the van, there was a couple of photographers trying to shoot the drawing as I was carrying it upside down,” Robles says.
And on occasion, he’s actually make the news himself.
“This was in the L.A. Times,” he says, taking a framed article off the wall and reading the headline. “'Jury sketches too accurate Judge Ito tells court artist.' That's me.”
The scariest person he’s seen? Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, whom Robles remembers had extremely large hands.
In recent cases, he's drawn former Clippers owner Donald Sterling and the accused shooter in the LAX attack.
Robles says he’s an artist first, journalist second. He does sell his work — an original sketch will cost you a couple thousand dollars. They go mostly to judges, but so far, and perhaps understandably, never to a defendant.
And although Robles' job is to record history as quickly and faithfully as he can, once the trial is over, he will make the occasional exception to his journalistic guidelines:
“I sold a drawing years ago to a lawyer, took it to his office — a profile shot of him at the podium. He had me shave down a little off the nose and he was happy."
“The Illustrated Courtroom: Famous Trials in Pictures” is at the Newport Beach Public Library through March 5.