For the archives: Courtroom stories rarely have a happy ending.

Courtroom drawing by Suzanne Forbes working as Rachel Ketchum ca 1993 defense 1The court cases that tv stations hire artists to document are are almost always really sad.

As a courtroom artist, I was present for a lot of trials involving the rape and murder of girl children. In 1993, I worked several.

Courtroom drawing by Suzanne Forbes working as Rachel Ketchum ca 1993 prosecution and defendantThis was one of the big, highly-publicized, month-long ones I worked.

There was a Latine defendant, with learning disabilities and substance abuse problems.

Courtroom drawing by Suzanne Forbes working as Rachel Ketchum ca 1993 defense 2There was a talented, charismatic Latine defense attorney.

He was a favorite to draw with all four of us courtroom artists,

Courtroom drawing by Suzanne Forbes working as Rachel Ketchum ca 1993 defendant court recorder judge and prosecutorThere was a prosecutor who decided to bring a case despite the lack of a body, based on DNA evidence.

Then and now, it’s very hard to get a conviction without a body.

Courtroom drawing by Suzanne Forbes working as Rachel Ketchum ca 1992 to 1994 evidenceThis was when DNA evidence was still new enough that expert witnesses testified at every trial where it was used.

They explained DNA sequencing in great detail. Juries fell asleep. Including this jury of middle-aged white women.

Courtroom drawing by Suzanne Forbes working as Rachel Ketchum ca 1993 mother and familyThere was a mother on social support, who was struggling to function.

And there was a little girl who disappeared completely, leaving nothing but a little diluted blood and what could have been the defendant’s semen, in a shower curtain in a storage locker.

Courtroom drawing by Suzanne Forbes working as Rachel Ketchum ca 1993 defense 3The Latine attorney did a tremendous job, and the Latine defendant was released.

But if you were there in the courtroom, it was loss on all sides. At the time we in the press felt it was a miscarriage of justice; now that I understand racism and particularly Minnesota racism more, I don’t know.

The little girl’s body was never found.

Me in 1992, a year before this trial, with my iguana Constance.

I also experienced a lot of personal trauma during this trial. The setting, a suburban town about a half hour drive from my flat in St. Paul, was very uncomfortable for me. I hated the place. I was acutely aware of my otherness, my New York junkie queer outsider position, despite wearing what I called my “passing” clothes.

Plus, there were what my friend and fellow courtroom artist Steve Michaels called “The Ghouls”. Something about this trial brought out the worst I ever saw in the spectators. The courtroom was open to anyone, and seats for press were not reserved.

So we artists had to cluster at the courtroom door, and fight for our seats. We lived in fear of not being able to work that day, and losing our jobs; the Ghouls lived in fear of not getting in to hear about the blood traces of a little girl. (She was four).

One morning an older man I particularly hated, a prurient creep who was there every single day, scuffled with me so violently I spilled my lunch in the doorsill. As I fought free and ran for my seat ahead of him, he yelled, “If you were my daughter for one night — ” I was doing intensive therapy about childhood sexual abuse by my father during these years. Thank the Goddess I had a therapist to tell about that moment.

During this trial I got a kidney infection and worked all day with a fever of 103, in my coat, hat and gloves, with my teeth actually chattering. When the court day was over and I’d handed my drawings to the cameraman to shoot, I went to the nearby ER. Where they couldn’t believe I was on my feet. In retrospect, that might be the viral infection that led to what I am finally accepting is probably ME/CFS.

In retrospect, I probably should not have been a courtroom artist, as a traumatized sexual abuse and rape survivor with PTSD and C-PTSD.

But it is what happened, and I am still glad that I was there to be a sympathetic female face in the audience for every woman and girl child survivor I saw testify.

Until today, no modern media record of these drawings existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.

I didn’t have a camera, and of course there were no camera phones. So until this moment, the only documentation of these drawings that existed was the footage the WCCO-TV cameraperson shot for the night’s news. And the station kept all that footage on BETAMAX tape. 

So, I am incredibly grateful to my Patreon Patrons, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to take time to document my art archives.

How I became a courtroom artist.

Drawing a police misconduct trial in Minneapolis.

The case of The Frozen Head.

4 thoughts on “For the archives: Courtroom stories rarely have a happy ending.

  1. Victoria Aronoff

    Thank you for sharing this. Such a horrible crime and I can’t believe the horrible spectator. I was traumatized for years from being a juror on a murder trial that was terrible on so many levels. I also love the drawing of the lawyer with his 80s suit and mullet.

    Reply
    1. Suzanne Forbes Post author

      oh shit, I am so sorry! Did we talk about your being a juror? I feel like it might be lost in one of my brain fog periods. And yes I drew so many mullets 😛

      Reply
  2. Pat Ketchum

    It makes me so sad to read this. What a terrible experience that court room artist job was but at the time it seemed so important to your career and you worked so hard at it.

    Reply
    1. Suzanne Forbes Post author

      It *was* such a good job, career-wise, and I never would have been able to do the work I’ve done for the last fifteen years if I hadn’t been a courtroom artist. It was so good for my self-esteem, to be a professional with an interesting and important job, so young. So that helped build the ego strength and identity that helped me survive other things, like the bad divorce. So I am sure it was where I was meant to be, you know?

      Reply

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