Bill Robles: Painting Pictures of History When Courtrooms Go Confidential

Robles drew his way into a business that barely existed until he put pencil to paper.

Just before Charles Manson was set to go on trial for multiple murders in 1970, a young up-and-coming artist was looking for a job.

"As a kid I always had an interest in news," said Bill Robles, a nationally-known courtroom sketch artist based in Los Angeles. "It all started about 45 years ago with the Charles Manson Trial."

Robles studied at the Art Center College of Design and has taught at LA Trade Technical College teaching illustration and drawing.

In 1969, Robles convinced bosses at CBS News to give him a shot — for nine months he sat in on the trial, following every minute and capturing some of the most infamous moments. Robles drew his way into a business that barely existed until he put pencil to paper.

“The Manson trial had celebrity, murder, family, followers. It was fascinating," he said.

When Manson shaved his head and his followers followed suit, Robles got that image too. The job is time consuming with time constraints, he says, and while his focus is the main person involved, he says often “the cast of characters come as time permits.”

One image Robles created during the Manson Trial still stands as iconic as the trial itself — the moment Manson attempted to attack the judge, leaping from his chair behind the defendant's desk.

"Pencil in his hand that he dropped," Robles said, "he was wearing flip-flops and he was tackled in midair by the bailiff. That image led with Walter Cronkite on the news that night, so that was kind of cool."

Back then there were seven courtroom sketch artists — today, Robles is one of only a few in Los Angeles. NBC4 enlists Robles as well as local sketch artist Mona Edwards when TV cameras are not permitted to cover important court cases.

Robles knows the skill is a gift. He is the visual for court cases where cameras aren't allowed and he has to work on tight deadlines.

"You have to freeze the moments," he said. "You have to capture that image.”

Through his eyes, the public is present.

"TV needs an image," he said. "And that’s where we come in.”

Robles was there when Rodney King explained his injuries at the hands of LAPD officers. He sketched the Menendez brothers as they cried through the jury's murder conviction. When Michael Jackson went on trial for child sex abuse, it was Robles who captured what cameras could not.

“Media from around the world would like up to shoot the artwork,” he said.

Robles said Jackson's facial features were unique to draw.

He said he likes to draw on the unique looks, particularly women, "because you really can create something a little more unique," pointing to his depictions of Lindsay Lohan, Christina DeLorean and Cameron Diaz.

Men with facial hair come easy, too.

"Great big beard, or a big mustache or huge hair," he said, pointing again to Manson and the accused shooter in the Aurora theater massacre in Colorado, James Holmes.

Robles' gift got him into a little trouble during the OJ Simpson murder trial when Judge Lance Ito subpoenaed him to court because he thought the sketches of the jury — faceless because it was against the court rules to show the jury — were still too accurate.

"Judge Ito saw it on television and he was astonished by the accuracy. So I was subpoenaed,” he said. "He had me put glasses on people, tone down hairdos.”

It lead to an official "Ito-Approved" stamp sketch artists had to have cleared before submitting sketches to the media.

His art has painted the picture of history. His image of Manson leaping at Judge Older in 1970 is the cover of a book released last year called "The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art" -- 45 of those years by Robles' own hands.

"When the cameras aren't allowed, we're king," he said, as he adds color to what's supposed to be a black-and-white system.

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