INTERVIEW BY BRUNO BAYLEY
Not all artists spend their days smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and getting hammered down at the Rusty Toe while wondering what to do with the next few weeks of their lives as they wait for a “gallerist” to decide that they want to pay $140,000 for a cube covered in chewing gum and cat hair.
Some of them actually get paid by the state to do their job, and we’re not just talking about being on the dole. Vicki Behringer, 48, from near Sacramento, is one of the most successful courtroom artists in the world. We thought we would ask a real professional about drawing murderers and lawyers really quickly.
Vice: First off, how did you get into courtroom art?
Vicki Behringer: I got into courtroom art in 1989 by chance. I was at the right place at the right time. What happened was, unfortunately, a local artist had an untimely death on his motorcycle and the local media was in need of a courtroom artist immediately. They took a chance on me, and it worked out to be a perfect fit. It’s extremely difficult for an unknown artist to get a news organization to take a chance on them, especially the larger networks such as CNN and ABC.
So who are your main clients?
Broadcast TV news, local affiliates of the national networks, and the national networks including CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. I also have some international clients on occasion, including the BBC. Sometimes I work for print, including AP, Reuters and other newspapers, but not nearly as much as broadcast television.
Right. What would you say are the specific attractions and difficulties of the job?
I really love my job. It is highly creative and flows at such a fast pace. All I can do is draw, and not think about what I’m drawing. I enjoy the people I work with, and all the different personalities. The trials are interesting too. They keep my left brain focused on the testimony, while my right brain is busy creating and sensing the emotions in the courtroom and translating that into art for the story.
The difficulties in this career are in not knowing when or where I’m going to work next. There can be long dry spells between trials and sometimes I have to drive quite a long way to get to the job, which can be exhausting. Plus, as any self-employed artist knows, paperwork can be less than amusing.
How long does it take you to do an accurate sketch of a murderer that you are happy with?
It would be nice if I had all the time in the world to do an accurate drawing but the fact is that I do the best I can with the time I have. I sometimes need to get a sketch out every hour or so. Most take from 45 minutes to two hours. The 45 minutes would be for a simple portrait. It would take two hours for a complete courtroom scene. I usually do between four and nine drawings per day, usually working through lunch.
What big cases have you worked on?
I have worked on many big cases in California. Some that you might recognize are the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski in 1997, the Scott Peterson trial in 2004, and Michael Jackson in 2005, and I am presently waiting for Barry Bonds, the baseball player, to go to trial in San Francisco.
Wow, with the Michael Jackson case, was that really strange? How did he seem during the trial?
I could write a whole book about that trial. Each trial has its own personality, and the MJ trial was indeed very different from any of the others. The first thing that struck me was how humble and frightened he seemed. I really didn't feel like he thinks or feels the same way the rest of us do. He seemes really lost and scared to me. We were under very strict rules and time schedules. Later I found out this was for our safety, and that of Michael and his family.
I’ve always enjoyed his music, especially in his early days when he was young and performing with the Jackson 5. He seemed so human and real in person that I just didn’t feel the whole celebrity thing that I imagined I would have. It feels like that with all the celebrities I meet.
Are you the overlord of courtroom art? You seem to get a lot of the big cases. Is there a lot of competition?
No, I’m not. I’m fortunate to have good relationships with my clients, and am called to work on many cases, but mostly in California. I am definitely open to travelling anywhere though. Again, I’ve been in the right place at the right time for some amazing trials. There is competition, more in some media markets than others. Our artistic styles seem to differ from market to market too. I use pen and ink and watercolor, while on the east coast they use mostly pastel.
Do you ever find yourself getting caught up in the case?
Yes, sometimes, but I try not to. It makes it more difficult to work. I remember in the Scott Peterson trial, the victim’s mother was on the stand wailing at the defendant, which caused everyone in the courtroom to cry. During this I was trying so hard to distract myself and think of things like which colors to use next. I even saw actual tears fall from the two men I was sitting between. The Scott Dylesky trial was difficult too, because the murder victim was someone I had just met. She was also the wife of a TV legal analyst, Dan Horowitz, with whom I had worked on two big trials.. It was a very violent murder, and it broke my heart to see my friend in so much pain sitting just feet away from me.
What was the Scott Dyleski trial about?
Scott Dyleski was a 16-year-old who lived in the beautiful upscale countryside of Northern California. He was a troubled young man who was into goth. One day after his dog was run over accidentally—by a different neighbor—he decided to ritualistically murder his neighbor, Pamela, one Saturday morning while Pamela’s husband Dan was out working on a trial defending another famous defendant, Susan Polk. When Dan came home, he found his wife's body in the trailer, covered in blood. Dyleski was convicted of first-degree murder as an adult, but since he was a minor they could not impose the death penalty, and he received life in prison instead.
Why do people still bother with drawings when there is so much technology available?
I think because there is a formality that can still exist in the courthouse. Some Judges just don’t want their courtrooms turned into a circus, with all of the parties playing to the cameras. The truth, as I see it, is that most of the coverage of trials is just a snippet here and a snippet there and hardly ever the gavel-to-gavel coverage which is the only way the audience can know what really went on. A very condensed version is all that time will allow in most news broadcasts.
Do people ever ask you to make them look better? Do lawyers or judges ever slip you $10 to remove double chins?
I am asked quite a bit to take a few pounds off, and to get rid of the double chin. But I also am asked to trim noses and add a little extra hair or color to the hair. Usually this is done in jest, by attorneys and their associates. I can’t remember a judge ever asking me for anything like this. And no one has ever offered or slipped me any money in exchange for this. I usually try to make people look their best, or at least not draw attention to things we often find undesirable. All this while still being realistic. I figure it’s good karma.
“Ted Kaczynski was charged with manufacturing explosive devices that were specifically targeted at individuals whom he thought were a threat to his ideologies. He was arrested after his manifesto was published 20 years later. This painting was done during the jury selection in the Federal Court in Sacramento, California. His attorney, Judy Clarke, is consoling him. Ted Kaczynski is second from the right. He pleaded guilty before the actual trial started, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.”
“Scott Dyleski was found guilty of the brutal murder of Pamela Vitale in her home in the hills of the East San Francisco bay area in California. I actually don’t remember much about this testimony, except that the witness was a professor at California State University. I chose this picture because it was a good representation of the parties in the trial, especially the young defendant.”
“Michael Jackson was accused but found not guilty of molesting a young man who had cancer that he had befriended. In this painting, Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show, is on the stand testifying that the young man who was the victim in this case called him and asked for help. Jay Leno never did actually testify in open court, just in this hearing.”