The defendant’s mug shot was shared across Minnesota. But his court appearance was captured only by colored pencils.
With a security guard sternly announcing that the use of smartphones for recording would not be tolerated, Cedric Hohnstadt played camera, sketching justice: a rough depiction of Daniel J. Heinrich’s first court appearance.
For the defendant’s yellow shirt and orange pants, Hohnstadt selected mustard and cheddar hues. Peach tones depicted the white man’s fleshy chin and thick nose. Gray shades imbued the hair of the stout 52-year-old charged with child pornography possession and named a person of interest this fall in Jacob Wetterling’s 1989 abduction.
With pencils, erasers and a ruler, Hohnstadt, a freelance illustrator, has spent a decade buffing up on legalese and speed in criminal trials. But his trade is vanishing. As more cameras are being allowed in courtrooms, fewer artists like Hohnstadt pad their incomes by sketching there. A pilot program in Minnesota district courts allowing cameras in civil trials was expanded Nov. 10 to include some criminal sentencings. But cameras are still banned whenever a jury is present, in juvenile proceedings and those involving domestic violence or sex crimes (like Heinrich’s).
The courtroom ban on cameras is a long-standing tradition.
“The presence of the media cameras can distort or affect how people behave,” Hohnstadt said, although he said he sees both sides of the argument. “Even reality television isn’t really reality — as soon as you put a camera on somebody, are they really being real?”
Cameras have their advocates, however. Clunky broadcast equipment, once condemned as a distraction, has slimmed into discreet smartphones. Proponents argue that cameras provide the most efficient mode of documentation. They’re employed more liberally in Wisconsin.
“We have to be prepared to throw open the doors and let people in,” said Jane Kirtley, a lawyer and professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “And if the consequences are going to be criticism and ridicule, that’s a healthy effect, in my opinion.”
A drawing incorporates interpretation.
“Good likeness isn’t just getting the nose right or the hair right,” Hohnstadt said. “I want to see their attitude, if anything.”
Artists translate posture and “poker faces” into quick pencil strokes. Is anyone slouching or looking tired? In caricature fashion, some artists ask, what is everyone’s defining feature, or two?
In real life, people sitting or standing in a courtroom aren’t as dramatic as renditions on “Law & Order.”
“They appear stoic, but you know that inside, they’re going under a lot of pressure,” Hohnstadt said.
At 9:57 a.m., Heinrich entered the courtroom. From his seat, Hohnstadt could see only the left profile of Heinrich, who moved little.
“He looks older,” someone muttered in reference to his mug shot, which had been on news broadcasts and newspaper front pages.
Hohnstadt’s hand flitted wildly. Hurriedly, he captured the courtroom’s details. The U.S. flag. The water pitcher and Styrofoam cups, which went untouched, on the defense stand. The boxy shoulders of the prosecutor.
Quick and disposable, court art is rarely purchased by anyone besides lawyers or media companies. Among Hohnstadt’s sketches, which have appeared in local and national media (and now on his blog) are Tom Petters’ 2013 sentencing for business fraud, Amy Senser’s hit-and-run trial in 2012 and a grieving mother’s 2003 testimony after the Rocori High School shooting.
Not all sketches are quickly forgotten. A case in point was Jane Rosenberg’s drawing of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady testifying at a hearing over deflated footballs. Her sketch set the Internet on fire when it made heartthrob Brady look ugly.
She later apologized and produced a do-over, although the original was replicated on apparel and Halloween “monster” cookies.
“That was pretty awful,” Rosenberg said from her home in New York. “I hope I never have to sketch any of these beautiful people again.”
A chipper man who relishes New Yorker cartoons, Hohnstadt started drawing in courtrooms with no formal training; a drug bust trial near his college in Fargo-Moorhead called for an art student’s duties.
Wrongdoing also has supported Art Lien, who sketched the Boston Marathon bombing trial. Lien covers the Supreme Court for NBC News and worries about a culture consuming viral images, especially when it comes to situations of life or death.
“There’s sort of an attitude right now that’s partly justified that a lot of the artists aren’t real competent,” Lien said from his home in Washington, D.C. “And that has to do with the fact that news orgs don’t want to pay top dollar.”
Cameras aren’t foolproof, he argued.
“I think the risk is that the trial the public sees is a very different trial than the jury sees,” he added. “People may not agree with it. They might not be as willing to accept a jury’s verdict.”
Just the facts
After an hourlong hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Tony Leung ordered that Heinrich should remain in custody. Hohnstadt rushed out of the courtroom to deliver his sketch — a “first pass” that presents the basic structure, notable body language and ensures “no one is missing a hand,” he joked.
He also makes sure the drawing accurately depicts what he witnessed.
“I try not to editorialize at all, which is tricky,” he said.
He delivered the sketch to a broadcast news truck parked outside, where a cameraman perched the drawing on a chair, panning it for an 11 a.m. broadcast. Then Hohnstadt retrieved the artwork to add finishing touches to a version that would be used in the evening news shows: extra color, finer lines, details that make the room feel enter-able.
“It’s kind of quaint and outdated, but so far, I think it’s somewhat necessary,” Hohnstadt said of courtroom sketching. “I do think that putting cameras in the courtroom is not always a good thing.”
Cameras could give “too much power to the amateurs,” he said. “The public does have a right to know what’s going on, but people are more interested in sound bites now more than ever.
“People just want to get the quick, bumper-sticker version of the event and move on.”
When the hearing ended, the few dozen onlookers exited into the St. Paul streets, where they promptly activated their smartphones.
Natalie Daher • 612-673-1775