In the front row of the viewing gallery on the eighth floor of a Brooklyn federal courthouse, Christine Cornell meticulously scribbles and shades the gaunt face of a Bonanno crime family mobster sitting in front of her.
Cornell, 61, is a courtroom composite sketch artist. Her subject is the alleged mafioso Vincent Asaro, who's charged with strangling a snitch to death with a dog chain, as well as masterminding the 1978 Lufthansa Heist, the JFK Airport robbery that netted $6 million [€5,6 million] in cash, jewels, and gold and became a plot point in Martin Scorsese's mob classic, Goodfellas.
The face of Asaro takes shape on Cornell's canvas, her pencil revealing a wrinkled, has-been wise guy, bitter and subdued at 80 years old, looking more stone gargoyle than gangster.
Cornell then picks up a pair of binoculars and presses them to her face. Without looking down, she sets her sights on the judge and begins to scribble. Staccato strokes of lead can be heard from her canvas, breaking the courtroom's tense silence. Before long, Cornell's palms are coated in a black layer of chalk and lead.
A throng of journalists surrounds her. "That's beautiful," whispers a nearby Fox News reporter, pointing at Cornell's sketch. Earlier, defense attorney Elizabeth Macedonio stopped by to complain that Cornell's drawing of her was not flattering. (Asaro, who faced life in prison if convicted, was later acquitted on all charges.)
"Courtrooms are interesting places—it's a great school of human behavior," says Cornell. "Someone is in trouble and their life is on the line so it's very fraught. Emotions are restrained. It's perfect for an artist—all hell really won't break loose. All the marshals are there to make sure it doesn't turn into a riot but emotions can run very high. It's not a dry place to do portraits."
Cornell, from Weehawken, New Jersey, has made a career of putting criminals and celebrity defendants on canvas. She has has covered upwards of 5,000 trials from New York to North Carolina in her 40-year career, sketching Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Central Park Five, and even John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman.Beyond these high-profile cases, Cornell has illustrated the likes of Puff Daddy, Mick Jagger, Martha Stewart, Donald Trump, and Woody Allen.
"Being a courtroom artist is a lot like being the short-order cook of portraiture," she says.
Cornell has been front and center for nearly every single historic mafia trial that's unfolded in New York, including all of 'Dapper Don' John Gotti's courtside appearances, most memorably when he was faced with the betrayal of underboss-turned-informant Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano.
"Gotti was in a fury," she says of the Gambino mafia boss. "His eyes would become like coals—dark and glowing and feral looking. He was scary when he was mad. This was the first time you had someone as high as underboss testify against the boss. [Gravano] confessed to 19 different murders."
Cornell's subjects can range from rapists, murderers, drug dealers, child molesters, and white-collar criminals. It's all part of her daily grind.
When she was 16, she dropped out of high school and enrolled at Pratt Institute with dreams of becoming a fine artist. Back then, courtroom art had never occurred to her. "I was in a big fat hurry to be on my own and be studying art," says Cornell, who's inspired by Spanish artists Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, and Joaquín Sorolla, and who defines her courtroom artwork as hyperrealist.
Then, in 1970, Cornell's elder sister, Irene, a WCBS radio journalist in New York, invited Christine to accompany her to a Trenton, New Jersey courtroom for a case she was reporting. There, she saw a handful of courtroom artists in motion.
"Who knew such a profession existed? I didn't intend to be a courtroom artist," explains Cornell. "This was a necessity thing. I needed a real job. It started doing it as a freelancer and it became my career from a very young age." Cornell was hooked. Her first case was middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's re-trial, and she began pursuing the career full-time when she got out of art school in 1975.
Today, Cornell mostly sells her work to news outlets like CNN, NBC, CBS, or Reuters. Sometimes she hawks her art to filmmakers and production houses, too. Her artwork was featured prominently in the Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five and she has traveled the globe to hold gallery showings, netting anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per sketch.
"It's pure hustle; it's all hustle," says Cornell, who, in 2013, sued Getty for copyright infringement of her artwork.
Cornell envisions herself as a variety of a court reporter. "I'm just there as an antenna and a sponge," she says. "I'm doing exactly whatever other reporters are doing but I'm making a picture about it. When I cover a trial gavel-to-gavel, you can pretty much know everything that went on just by going through the drawings. The whole story is in the drawings. I get to put it all together."
Dorian Geiger is a Canadian multimedia journalist, photographer, filmmaker, and freelance crime reporter for VICE. He's based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.