When Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes took the stand on Nov. 19, 2021, in her criminal trial in the U.S. District Court in San Jose, there was no doubt that it would be a newsworthy moment.
Holmes was, for a brief, shining moment, the youngest woman to make herself a billionaire. Now she was on trial for fraud against investors and patients.
Media interest was through the roof. But because cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, the scene would not be photographed.
It fell to courtroom artist Vicki Behringer — her name rhymes with "derringer" — to capture the moment.
It was a role she was very used to. She had been drawing key witnesses at Bay Area trials for 30 years — everyone from murderers and rapists to sobbing victims and poker-faced defendants to CEOs and moguls and rock stars.
Reporters write the first draft of history; Behringer is there to draw it.
A courtroom artist is a journalist. He or she reports the story in a drawing, rather than words, but the same central rule of journalism applies:
You can't make things up.
It might create more drama for the prosecutor to point his forefinger in the defendant's face when he makes an accusation, but if it doesn't happen that way, Behringer won't draw it.
Behringer is a professional and takes her craft seriously. You only draw what happened.
One frequent example: Because the drama of the courtroom occasionally produces tears, Behringer is always on the lookout for crying on the stand.
When someone starts to sob, Behringer waits for the tissue.
She loves it when they pull out a tissue; nothing more clearly shows that a witness is weeping than a nice white tissue pressed to the eyes. But if the witness doesn't take out a tissue, Behringer won't put it in her drawing.
A small thing, but it means everything.
Behringer was there when Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stand at the U.S. District Court in Oakland in his company's tech battle with Epic Games in May 2021.
With the pandemic still raging, the obstacles confronting a courtroom artist were particularly challenging.
Everyone except the witness and the questioning attorney had to wear masks. Clear acrylic screens divided the judge and the witness and the court reporter. The witness had to wear a clear face shield.
Fortunately, it was a bench trial, and Behringer was able to get a very good seat. She wasn't more than 10 feet from the witness. And she had practiced drawing Cook at home from photographs.
Not to use, but to get to know the shape of his face — those key landmarks so essential to capturing a likeness of a subject: The distance between eye and eyebrow. The length and breadth of the nose. The shape of the mouth.
"When somebody is famous, you have got to get their likeness down. It can't be just kind of close," Behringer says.
So much of drawing is about careful observation. She needed to see the set of his face, his expression, the look he presented to the court.
When Cook sat down, she discovered, to her horror, that the acrylic face shield created a reflection that ran right down the center of the shield. She couldn't see most of his face.
She went ahead and drew what she could see and what she remembered. She was really glad that she had practiced drawing his face the night before.
The drawing came out fine, but when his testimony was over and she had an opportunity to see him from a different perspective, she realized that he has "really big blue eyes."
She had been 10 feet away and couldn't tell the color or his eyes.
The challenges that confront courtroom artists are more than just getting a good view of the proceedings.
They need to make the scene interesting.
There is plenty of drama in the courtroom, but most of it is not visual. A courtroom is not a basketball court with muscle-rippling athletes windmilling dunks from above the rim.
The actors in a courtroom drama dress in the plainest of plain clothes. Lawyers are the last people in the country still wearing ties. If you look at a courtroom in a high-profile case, you see a sea of blue suits. No hats, no feather boas. Even the jewelry is muted. A bright dress stands out like a redheaded stepchild.
Behringer looks for a moment of emotion — surprise, exultation, humor, agony — and does her best to draw it, even if it is a fleeting feeling that passes in seconds. It is even harder than it sounds — and it sounds very hard — because the subject is not posing; he or she is presenting in a continuous feed scrolling forward in real time.
If Behringer sees a witness flash a look of regret or smug satisfaction, she has to decide whether to go with that or keep waiting and watching in case the witness later shows the more cinematic looks of anger or riotous laughter.
Sometimes Behringer will decide too soon and then see something better and have to make a fast switch to a new piece of heavy Strathmore watercolor paper and begin drawing anew.
When that happens, she is juggling different sketches along with the tools of her profession — her lap desk and makeup bag of pens and brushes and erasers, her palette with the squeeze tube dabs of watercolor that she mixes with drips of water from the honey bear she uses to make the colors pop.
If she is lucky, she will have been able to snag the seat next to her to hold her gear, but in the big trials where there is a lot of media interest, her working space may be limited to her lap and the ground at her feet.
Behringer owes a lot to the Unabomber.
She had been drawing trials for six or seven years and when the trial of Theodore John Kaczynski was set for Sacramento in June of 1996.
Kaczynski had been a math prodigy and later a professor but dropped out to live a primitive life in the Montana woods. Between 1978 and 1995, he also pursued a nationwide campaign of more than a dozen bombings that killed three and injured more than 20.
The case attracted intense media interest, and there were not enough seats in court. The court only allowed a single "pool" artist. A pool reporter or artist is one that covers an event or trial on behalf of everyone and all the other reporters use their work by agreement.
Behringer was selected, a huge deal given that the Kaczynski trial was to be that year's "Trial of the Century."
And even though — sadly for Behringer — Kaczynski ultimately pled guilty without a full trial, there were many hearings to draw. Her work was noticed, and many of the contacts she made at that trial propelled her career forward.
One day, she was in court, waiting for Kaczynski to be brought in. She was sharing a laugh with another reporter when the courtroom doors opened. She turned toward Kaczynski coming down the aisle, a residual smile still on her face.
Kaczynski saw the smile and, thinking it intended for him, smiled broadly in return.
Others in the courtroom saw his smile and thought it signified that Behringer and the Unabomber were friends.
A woman, one of the "gavel groupies" that follow notorious trials, came up to Behringer later and said, "Oh, do you like Ted too?"
The courts recognize that courtroom artists are journalists.
In 1973, a federal judge was presiding over the trial of the "Gainsville Eight," a group charged with conspiracy to disrupt the 1972 Republican convention.
To protect the defendants' right to a fair trial, the court ordered no sketching in the courtroom and no publication of courtroom drawings, wherever drawn.
The courtroom artist Aggie Whelan attended the trial, and in what must be the courtroom artist's equivalent of card counting, she observed the proceedings then left the courtroom and drew the scenes from memory.
The trial judge heard about it and confiscated the sketches.
The artist then — still relying on memory — drew more scenes, and they were later aired on CBS. Whelan was found guilty of criminal contempt.
The appeals court — in the 1974 case the United States v. CBS — set aside the conviction on the grounds that even though a trial judge has enormous discretion in managing his or her courtroom to give a fair trial, that power has to be balanced against the press' right to gather the news. The court found that both prohibitions — the one against sketching and the one against publishing sketches were overly broad and violated the First Amendment.
Behringer grew up in the Bay Area, first in Los Altos and later Cupertino. She went to Cupertino High School in the '70s. She liked history and French and spent a summer abroad in France. She was a 4.0 student, but she dismisses that accomplishment, saying it was an era when you could get an A in English by watching a movie and writing a report.
Art was her major interest, and when she graduated high school in 1977, she attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco and Los Angeles studying fashion illustration. The problem was that, by the time she graduated in 1979, fashion illustration was being taken over by photography, and there were no jobs.
Behringer had a succession of unsatisfying jobs. Waitressing. Real estate agent. Title company.
She was always drawing. Sometimes she sold her art at fairs and weekend markets. For a year or two, she drew pen-and-ink drawings of houses going on the market because real estate agents could photocopy them into their marketing materials better than photographs.
She was taking courses in pen-and-ink drawing and watercolor painting in 1990 when a friend, out of the blue, opined that Behringer should become a courtroom artist. That comment made no impression, but two weeks later, a local Sacramento TV station lost its courtroom artist to a motorcycle accident, and the coincidence made her interview for the job.
The news director liked Behringer's work and gave her a tryout. She didn't know what she was doing, but when she got to court and sat down "with all the other artists ... it was like, 'Oh yeah, this is it, this is exactly where I'm supposed to be,'" she says.
Coming up, there was no apprenticeship. You just got thrown in and did the work.
You had to fight for a good seat. If you got stuck behind a huge attorney or a pillar, you could miss the whole thing.
Behringer learned to bring binoculars in case she got marooned in the back.
There were many more courtroom artists when she was establishing herself in the early 1990s. Some newspapers and TV stations had courtroom artists on staff, and she was amazed at the talent of her colleagues in the field.
Thirty years later, Behringer's face lights up when she remembers a long-ago moment when a courtroom deputy called out to the other artists, "You better watch out for her. She's pretty good."
There is an exception to the rule that Behringer only draws what she sees: the layout of the courtroom space.
When she covers a trial, Behringer believes it important that at least one of her drawings shows the whole scene: the jurors in their box, the judge up high behind the bench, the lawyers — sometimes squads of them — facing the judge, court personnel in the "well" of the court in front of the bench. And of course, the essential trappings of justice — the court seal and the flag.
The problem is that all the components of the scene exist at different heights and angles and distances.
In order to show it all, distances are sometimes collapsed so the moving parts fit together on one canvas.
Thus, the lawyers and judge and witness are often arrayed in the same drawing, each of a size that would suggest they are on top of each other.
But artistic license only goes so far.
If Behringer is seated behind the railing that divides the parties from the public, it is common for her to have a full-face view of the judge and witness. The problem is the lawyers are usually sitting in front of Behringer and, like her, facing the judge.
This means that her view of the lawyer who rises to address the witness is often just his or her back.
Behringer watches the lawyer like a hawk, waiting for the moment when the lawyer turns sideways and she can get a mental picture of the lawyer's profile to add to the drawing.
"That's the magic," she says, laughing.
But it doesn't always work. "Sometimes I just give up, and it's like, no, I'm seeing the back of them, and I'm just going to sketch the back of them."
Not all faces are equal subjects.
Women are hard, especially pretty ones, Behringer says. "You just add one little line, you just added five years."
A courtroom artist is one of the few people who love to see a face with wrinkles. The hardest people to draw are those people "who don't have enough wrinkles and don't have things like facial hair and glasses or a hairstyle that says something."
Behringer says she tries to be nice to people. "Say a gentleman has a big bald spot," she says. "I won't not make it look like a bald spot, but it's not going to be the thing that your eye goes straight to."
She is the opposite of a caricaturist.
Behringer has drawn many celebrated Bay Area trials, among them, the Proposition 8 case where Gore v. Bush adversaries Ted Olson and David Boies teamed up to challenge a ban on same-sex marriage.
She covered the trials of Enron and Barry Bonds and the Golden State Killer.
During the pandemic, she drew a few Zoom hearings, but they were hard. The images on her screen were small and getting the details right at that size can be impossible. But if she made one image big, she risked missing what was happening in another square.
Behringer covered every day of the Elizabeth Holmes trial, all four months, and now she is drawing the trial of Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani, which recently started in San Jose.
Balwani was Holmes' business partner and lover. Holmes said he abused her and blamed him for many of the problems at her blood testing company, Theranos. Balwani disputes that narrative. There should be many dramatic moments for Behringer to sketch at his trial.
She is also working the Scott Peterson evidentiary hearings. Peterson was a convicted murderer who succeeded in getting the California Supreme Court, 16 years after his conviction, to order a hearing into whether juror misconduct should compel a new trial.
Behringer is in court for those hearings at the San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City, which is something of a homecoming because she covered the original murder trial, 18 years ago.
Among many celebrated trials she has drawn, the Peterson trial was particularly memorable, because "it went on for so long, and the media, we all became a family."
Behringer was blown away by the intensity of the interest in the case all across the country, "You know, you walk out of the courtroom, and oh, there's NBC, there's CBS, there is CNN's booth."
But if Peterson attracted national interest, Michael Jackson's 2005 molestation trial in Santa Barbara County Superior Court in Santa Maria took it to another level. "There (were) reporters from all over the world, and the media coordinator (would) have this (map) thing in his little tent, and it would show like every country that had visited ... It was just the biggest zoo I'd ever seen," she says.
Behringer laughs as she says, "You know the cartoon where you see the reporters all in a little ball chasing somebody, and you know, you got the cameras in that audience sticking out? I actually saw that in real life."
Behringer loves her work, though it can be very physically demanding.
When she is working, she starts drawing within minutes of sitting down. She works through breaks. She takes five or 10 minutes for lunch. She works until the courtroom closes and then often out in the hall or courtyard afterward. She is in the zone. At the end of a long day, she is exhausted.
But there are many paybacks.
Behringer gets to sketch people every day. "I find people's faces fascinating," she says.
She reports that the people she interacts with — the reporters and the photographers — are amazing and even though "everybody picks on lawyers, I find them to be, you know, very nice."
And there is the special excitement that comes with a celebrated trial.
At the Holmes trial, Gen. James N. Mattis, former U. S. Secretary of State and a member of Holmes' board of directors at Theranos, showed up as an unannounced witness.
Behringer had to draw him without warning. There was definitely pressure. "When somebody is famous, you have to get their likeness ... Everybody's going to be looking at that," she says.
Even after 32 years, she relishes the opportunities to draw something new.
During the Holmes trial there was a day when the audio-video technology that displays exhibits wasn't working, so the court personnel and the lawyers "had to go old school, and they turned the lights down, and they had a projector and put a lamp next to the witness box," she says.
Behringer smiles at the recollection. "The projector was like on a Kleenex box and then a box, you know, like a legal box and stuff, they were just trying to figure it out. ... I had a field day with that."
She doesn't know what the future holds for courtroom sketch artists.
"Cameras are getting in all over the place, and the media would much rather have a photograph than the sketch," Behringer says, though she isn't sure why. "They think people want to see the actual thing."
And cameras are not the only existential threat to her livelihood.
Behringer is a freelancer, and she doesn't work on spec. She is hired by broadcast stations and online and print newspapers. But many of her clients have been badly hurt by the changes in the media landscape. "Their budgets keep getting smaller and smaller. And ... all the newspapers are doing weird things and just barely trying to hang on."
She says, "I always know that at any moment this could be over ... and there wouldn't be a job anymore."