Miami-Dade County

A gallery of courtroom sketches keeps Miami legal history alive

Miami Herald Staff

For many young lawyers who dart down the halls of the criminal courthouse, the history of Miami-Dade’s legendary legal dramas — along with the names of famous lawyers and often infamous defendants — might ring unfamiliar.

There was Ted MacArthur, the ex-homicide detective who murdered his wife in 1989. Joseph Hickey, the son of a Miami judge, who tried to extort $2 million in a bizarre kidnapping hoax. And Al Sepe, the Miami judge who did 18 months in prison in the notorious “Court Broom” judicial corruption scandal that erupted in 1991.

“It was the second-biggest corruption scandal in the nation’s history, and no one remembers it,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Diane Ward as she walked down a hallway behind her courtroom.

Thanks to Ward, the enduring images of those and other important trials — sketched in bold pastel strokes by South Florida courtroom artists — now hang in a hallway behind her fourth-floor courtroom at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building. For the judge and lawyers who recently loaned her framed sketches, the corridor has become a mini-museum documenting not only the cases of yesteryear but the fading art of courtroom sketching.

Once a thriving trade, it has largely disappeared along with the budgets of the news organizations that would commission work — a rare occasion now reserved for big trials in federal court, where cameras and recording devices are banned. And, because everybody is an art critic, the public mostly notices the work when a sketch isn’t quite right.

Last week, longtime New York artist Jane Rosenberg was widely lampooned for her zombie-like depiction of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a model-handsome star who was in federal court fighting his suspension for supposedly deflating footballs.

If anything, the sketch — which went viral on the Internet — underscored the fact that churning out accurate images of people in court is hard work. Lawyers and defendants are constantly moving. Vantage points may be limited. Hearings, especially arraignments, might be fleeting, with little time to memorize the face.

Janet Hamlin, a New York-based artist who sketches courtroom proceedings at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo, caught flack a few years ago after terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed complained about his likeness.

“Every court artist can commiserate,” Hamlin said of Rosenberg’s plight. “Nailing the likeness, there’s always going to be a day you didn’t quite get it.”

Miami’s primary courtroom sketch artist, Shirley Henderson, moved back to her native Georgia earlier this year after work all but dried up.

“The last of the Mohicans,” she calls herself. “I have done every major trial in federal court for the last 35 years. These are historical documents. I think it’s very important to record the trials.”

So far, nine drawings hang in Judge Ward’s hallway, some with labels explaining the trials. All but one depict criminal trials that unfolded in federal court.

In South Florida, the collection shows that the artists got it right more often than not. And they had a lot to work with — for decades, federal court here was among the busiest in the country.

Henderson documented many of the most important characters to come through Miami courts: Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1991, Elian Gonzalez in 2000, the lawyers at the Florida hearings for the contested 2000 presidential election. Her last assignment: Anthony Bosch, the figure arrested last year in connection with the steroid scandal that rocked Major League Baseball.

Henderson’s work has been shown in numerous exhibitions over the years, including one featuring 90 pieces at the Historical Museum of Miami. Some sketches are on permanent display at the University of Miami. Others are also at the iconic Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach.

“I still consider myself available, should it be worth the time and effort for a station to fly me in,” said Henderson, who lives in Savannah, Georgia.

And now her work is at the Gerstein courthouse.

Judge Ward started with sketches of herself during her defense days, and also those featuring her husband, Miami defense attorney Ed O’Donnell. But soon, she began asking other lawyers to contribute sketches they had purchased over the years.

Defense lawyer Rod Vereen agreed. He represented Paul Hill, who murdered a doctor at an abortion clinic in Tallahassee in 1994, a case prosecuted under a then-new federal law.

Vereen, then a federal public defender there, represented Hill — or, at least, mostly sat at his side while Hill represented himself. Vereen was sketched for the first time, a drawing that now hangs on the wall. Also depicted: Vereen at trial with Stanley Phanor, part of the so-called Liberty City Seven terrorists. Their lawyers succeeded in garnering two mistrials before a third jury convicted most of the men in 2009.

“We’re known for having some of the best litigators in the country,” Vereen said. “It’s an educational experience for these young lawyers to see the sketches and learn about the cases.”

Ward is hoping to one day move the gallery to a place within easy view of the public. Right now, the hall is secured because it is near several judges’ chambers. For that, she’ll need a few more lawyers to chip in sketches.

“These are historical documents,” Ward said. “They reflect the growth of the city and should be preserved.”

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