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Sketching the Puget Sound area’s most notorious trials

We take for granted seeing video of court proceedings these days, and even the occasional “trial of the century” covered wall-to-wall by Court TV.

This wasn’t always the case, and even in the recent past, it was up to talented, fast-working illustrators to capture the only images of some of the most notorious legal proceedings in the Puget Sound area.

Cameras – still and motion picture – were banned from most courtrooms back in the 1930s after the trial in New Jersey of Bruno Hauptman, who was convicted of the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindberg’s infant son.

That trial happened before TV, but big, noisy and cumbersome newsreel cameras were blamed for contributing to a circus atmosphere, and in the wake of the Hauptman trial, the American Bar Association encouraged states to ban cameras from courtrooms.

Many did, and the bans remained in place for about 40 years.

But changes in media habits, especially the rise of television – along with development of quieter cameras – meant a changing landscape. In December 1974, cameras were allowed in some Washington courtrooms as a test.

Then, in July 1976, following similar events in Colorado and Alabama, the Washington State Supreme Court approved a change in the rules and lifted the ban.

On September 20, 1976, the first post-ban use of cameras in a Washington courtroom took place in Richland at the Benton County Courthouse.

Though the ban had been lifted, it was still up to each judge as to whether or not to allow cameras in particular trials, and many chose to say no. That’s why court artists were still pretty busy around here even years after the rules had changed in 1976.

One of those busy artists was Doug Keith.

Keith is an illustrator and children’s book author who worked for KIRO TV and other Seattle area stations back in the 1980s to sketch some of the most notorious defendants of that not-so-long-ago era.

Sketching Charles Campbell

One of the most notorious was Charles Campbell. He was arrested in April 1982 for the murders of Renae Wicklund, her daughter Shanna Wicklund and the Wicklund’s neighbor, Barbara Hendrickson, in Clearview in Snohomish County. Doug Keith was there when Campbell made his first court appearance for an arraignment back in April 1982.

“Yeah, that was when the first brought him in,” Doug Keith said earlier this month, leaning over a work table in his studio and pointing to a sketch he hurriedly made that day more than 35 years ago.

“You can see in this particular one I just did a sketch of his feet, because his ankles were shackled and, of course, he was handcuffed, too,” Keith said. “And he had his jail coveralls on.”

Keith says that arraignments are often very brief, and required speed to capture the look of the accused. Trials were not as frantic, allowing more time for the artist to study the subject and sometimes even interact.

Did Doug Keith get any sense of Campbell as he sketched him then, as well as during subsequent court appearances?

“He was kind of creepy,” Keith said. “He would sit there and stare at me like, ‘Why are you drawing my picture?’”

Campbell was ultimately convicted and then executed in Walla Walla in May 1994.

Doug Keith’s art

In Keith’s cheery, light-filled and colorfully decorated North Seattle studio, he unpacked dozens of similar sketches, mostly from the 1980s.

All are on off-white or cream colored paper, which Keith says is better than pure white for television, and each measures roughly 18 by 30 inches.

Most were sketched in black ink and then filled in later with colored pencil, and many also have Keith’s original notes in the margins, reminding the artist what color to use for a defendant’s suit, or capturing the names of attorneys or others depicted in the sketches.

Most of the sketches are of people involved in some very dark and notorious criminal proceedings.

Thumbing through sheaves of papers, a Pacific Northwest “rogue’s gallery” of sorts begins to form on the work table.

Here’s Tony Baruso, who was on trial for fraud when Doug Keith sketched him in 1984, and who was later convicted of murder in the death of Filipino-American cannery union organizers Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo. Baruso died in prison in 2008.

Next, it’s Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak, who’s serving a life sentence at Walla Walla for his role in the Wah Mee Massacre.

Then, David Rice, who was ultimately sentenced to life in prison with the chance of parole for murdering the Goldmark family in Madrona on Christmas Eve 1985.

Finally, Kevin Coe, Spokane’s so-called South Hill Rapist who terrorized that community for years. Doug Keith sketched him during a retrial that was held in King County. Coe served his sentence and is now at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

“He seemed arrogant,” Keith recalled.

Tools for sketching

No matter who it was or what he or she was accused having done, Keith had a job to do: quickly capture an image using only his talent and the timeless tools of an artist.

He developed his own approach to getting the sketch in those pre-Internet days.

“When it was a trial usually happening they would give us a seat,” Keith said. “Sometime, we’d even sit in the jury box if there wasn’t a jury. But most of the time we’d try to get a vantage point where we could just see and then we would just sit, at least the way I would work, I would sit and sketch out everything in black and white and do the color later. But since it was a trial, I had the time I could actually do the color work right there.”

And then what? Time to use some rudimentary scanner or other device to convert the oblong paper image to digital?

Not exactly. It was a little bit more straightforward than that.

“The camera man for whatever TV station would just shoot the artwork on site, put it on video, and that was it,” Keith said.

There was no so-called “Ken Burns effect” to manipulate images, Keith said. Any movement or zooming or other visual effects were done with a video camera – with the sketch just taped to the wall in the hallway at the courthouse.

Sketching The Order

On one occasion, a large group of defendants was tried at once in the same crowded courtroom. Keith has several images he drew during a federal racketeering and robbery trial in Seattle in 1985 of 10 members of the Neo-Nazi group called The Order.

Order founder Robert Mathews had died in a standoff with the FBI on Whidbey Island in 1984. Keith said all those people made for a “Sistine Chapel” of defendants and attorneys, and it also gave him his first national exposure as an artist.

“My wife called me at my studio . . . and she goes, ‘You’ve gotta turn on channel 7. Dan Rather’s talking about your drawings,’” Keith said.

Keith flipped on the TV, and sure enough, there were his sketches visible over Rather’s shoulder on the CBS Evening News.

“That was pretty cool,” Keith said.

But the work of a courtroom artist wasn’t always pretty cool. Keith heard some pretty graphic testimony all those decades ago, and details of horrific crimes would stick with him.

But sometimes being in court was unusually personal for unexpected reasons.

Sketching Ruth Neslund

Ruth Neslund was accused of murdering her husband, Rolf Neslund, who was known for having piloted a ship in 1978 that struck and severely damaged the old West Seattle Bridge.

Keith was, believe it or not, flown by a KIRO TV helicopter to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to cover the trial in November 1985. Neslund was ultimately convicted and died in prison at the Women’s Correctional Facility in Purdy in 1993.

Keith said that sketching that particular trial – or, really, that particular defendant – was just kind of strange in an almost absurdly personal way.

“She kind of reminded me of my own mom in a way … just her general look,” Keith said, with what sounded like a nervous laugh. “Elderly, she had the whitish hair. About the same build and stuff. It was very strange.”

Keith also sketched others in the courtroom besides the defendants, including ubiquitous defense attorney Tony Savage, and Judge Jack Tanner, as well as a group of jurors in the 1984 obscenity trial of Roger Forbes. As part of the presentation of evidence, that group was infamously driven to a theatre operated by Forbes in Renton where they screened 10 porno movies.

Doug Keith’s portfolio from those years isn’t only about crimes and courtrooms. One summer, KIRO TV commissioned sketches of the hydro races in the Tri-Cities that the station then used as graphics a week later during their coverage of the Seafair races in Seattle.

A gallery of more than a dozen images created by Keith is accessible here.

Later this summer, Keith will be meeting with curators at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) about the possibility of donating his original courtroom sketches to the museum’s extensive Pacific Northwest archives.

The curators are likely to weigh the facts before they rule on whether or not Keith’s sketches are an important part of local history.

Although, it’s pretty clear to anyone who’s taken the time to look closely at the evidence about their ultimate findings.

A “guilty” verdict is likely the only result.

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