Saturday, May 1, 2010

Courtroom Sketch Artists

I was reading a news article about the Omar Khadr trial which included the courtroom sketch that you see above. That got me wondering why people still sketch courtroom proceedings by hand in this age of digital imagery.

A quick consultation with the Repository of All Truth, Wikipedia, informed me that many courtrooms don't allow cameras during the trial, and so the sketch artist remains the only medium for capturing images of legal proceedings. However, the judiciary ban on cameras seems directed primarily against the media. If the objection to courtroom photography focuses on the potential distraction caused by media photographers in the courtroom rather than the capture and distribution of courtroom images in and of itself, then His Honor, Justice Halmanator must deem that objection overruled.

At risk of incurring the wrath of UCSA (the Union of Courtroom Sketch Artists), couldn't you replace the courtroom sketch artist with a similar public official equipped with a digital camera? With today's technology, they wouldn't even have to use a flash, necessarily. That way, you could get a whole lot more pictures and quickly pick the best ones for publication.

It's not like there's no precedent for using technology to update archaic courtroom procedures. Look at stenographers. In the days when courtroom transcripts were recorded by scribbling on paper in shorthand, writers cramp was the scourge of courtroom stenographers everywhere. Eventually, the stenotype machine was able to relieve this occupational hazard, while significantly increasing the speed at which courtroom stenographers could record their transcripts. These were eventually replaced with computerized stenotype machines, eliminating paper entirely. If there's no problem with updating the technology to capture the spoken word, why not do the same for capturing images?

As for any UCSA members concerned about their job security, nobody's suggesting that the same people couldn't continue to do the job, and simply trade up their paper, pencils and pastels for digital cameras. I understand that courtroom sketch artists may not get the same professional satisfaction out of snapping digital photos as they do from practicing their artistic acumen so, fine, feel free to pick the best digital picture and render it by hand afterward if you really must. Besides, that way you have the advantage of subjects who hold their positions while you draw them.

I've always suspected that a photographic memory must be a prerequisite skill for courtroom sketch artists. I mean, it's not like they can ask the court to freeze long enough to draw their pictures.

Courtroom Sketch Artist: Hold it! Hold it everybody! If you could hold those positions for just a moment please? Uh, Mr. Khadr, could you tilt your chin up just slightly? Yes, that's good. Now look at the prosecuting attorney ... yes, good ... er, don't smile though. This man is trying to put you away for life. He's not your friend. Look adversarial; defiant ... yes, that's good! Now, if the defence attorney could just rest her hand, lightly on Mr. Khadr's shoulder. You're reassuring your client. You're there for him. Everything's going to be alright. Good! Now everyone just hold those positions for just a few minutes...

I think we can all see how digital photography would just make things so much easier.

Disclaimer: There is, to the best of my knowledge, no courtroom sketch artists union known as the UCSA. I made that up. Three organizations that have adopted the acronym UCSA include the University of California Students' Association, the University of Canterbury Students' Association and the University of Canberra Students' Association, none of which directly represent courtroom sketch artists, but all of which might conceivably produce them.


Martin said...

A problem with allowing digital court-room images would be control. One of the frightening things about the digital age is the ease with which photographs can be taken. We live in the YouTube era, and nothing is private anymore. Any person with a cell phone could be snapping your picture at any moment. Digital cameras are so unobtrusive ... small, quiet, and stealthy. A court room sketch artist can only make a small number of sketches (perhaps only one) during a session, and there is only one immediate hard copy. A photographer could take hundreds of photos, virtually unnoticed, and distribute them world-wide, instantly, with little trouble. The justice system would lose a lot of control over court-room images if it went digital.

Ryan said...

I aggree with Martin
HOLY CRAP what would we do if we couldn't control what pictures were taken in a court room? basicaly these pictures would go around the world like a noose and the world would pretty much end. There would be no more communist control over court room pictures, and that would be a sad, sad thing.
These pictures must be restricted. They are extremely dangerous.
It must not be possible to accurately record court proceedings. I mean seriously, can you imagine if someone accurately recorded a court proceeding??! gosh that would be so beyond awful that i don't even want to start thinking about it.

Halmanator said...

I see your point, Ryan. On the other hand, I think one could argue that the O.J. Simpson trial demonstrated that turning courtroom proceedings into a public spectacle isn't necessarily a good thing.

Ryan said...

One could argue that censorship is a good thing.

The media is going to blow something out of proportion at least every two weeks, regardless of what kind of kind of source material you provide them with.

The only reason that people would have for preventing recordings has to with restricting the media, which is none of the government's business.

I would rather see the TV play an actual video quote form the court room, than have a drawing of someone showing what ever emotion the news company wants along with a biased newscaster saying something about what happened.

If someone has a legitimate reason for restricting it, I would like to hear it, but because it "isn't necessarily a good thing" doesn't count and neither does "the justice system would loose control over court room images." It isn't the justice system's place to control the media.

My two cents.