Marilyn Church,
The Art of Justice:
An Eyewitness View
of Thirty Infamous Trials

(Quirk, 2006)

The Art of Justice is much, much more than its subtitle ("An Eyewitness View of Thirty Infamous Trials") lets on. The 30 criminal trials in this gorgeous large-format book span the decades from the 1970s to the present. Courtroom scenes are portrayed in striking full-color sketches, accompanied by an objective narrative about the indictment, evidence, courtroom atmosphere, media coverage and American cultural pulse.

I actually hesitated about picking up the book, because I envisioned it as an art piece, and while it is most certainly artistic, the book is also about the American collective memory, the changing face of true crime coverage over the course of three decades, the meaning of celebrity and the indelible personal impressions of people who were present in these courtrooms as journalists and sketch artists.

The impressions of courtroom artist Marilyn Church take this book to the next level. She writes about the hilarious scene created when Marla Maples' pilfered stockings and high heels were displayed in courtroom trial of her stalker: "I had fun pulling them into the center of the drawing, emphasizing the bizarre scene of footwear spilling everywhere." Most other scenes have a more somber tone, such as the judge's order for all artists to stow their drawing supplies when the Central Park Jogger rape victim was on the stand. Church also provides insight into the stony, vacant manner of preppie murderer Robert Chambers; he chilled her to the bone because her own children could have easily been his peers and friends, at risk from this cold sociopath.

Church's career spans all the significant trials of the last three decades, from the modern celebrity trials of Sean "Puffy" Combs and Martha Stewart to the fall of the Teflon Don, John Gotti, to famous crimes by the Long Island Lolita and Son of Sam. Yes, O.J. is here, too. Church was commissioned to create courtroom sketches for the trial precisely because every other media source had full-color glossy images from live video and photo, and one magazine wanted something to set themselves apart -- what better than a good, old-fashioned full-color sketch?

As someone who was raised on the O.J. Simpson trial, I enjoyed this book as a history lesson. I was in junior high for the first World Trade Center attacks (1993), and it most affected me because my class trip to New York City was cancelled as a result. With a decade-plus of hindsight, and having lived as a New York resident through the 2001 attacks, I had an entirely different perspective on the event and trial, and the narrative at hand provided much-needed insight into jihad in America in the early 1990s.

This is truly a courtside seat to history, one that has the advantage of post-trial hindsight, so that stories can be told in full detail, with all the post-verdict developments. I enjoyed this as a history lesson, as an exploration of the criminal trials I grew up on and as a poignant perspective on the changing face of criminal trials in the last 35 years. Some of the trials of the 1970s dealt with issues that seem long-settled to me, as a child of the 1980s.

As a bonus, this book not only provides detailed insight into 30 infamous trials, it concludes with a "celebrity gallery" of famous faces in various trials. Celebrities sketched included Truman Capote, a bloated David Crosby, Mick Jagger, Don King ("everyone else seems diminished when King is in the room"), Mayflower Madame Sidney Biddle Barrows, Imelda Marcos and Sid Vicious (among many others).

by Jessica Lux-Baumann
19 August 2006

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