Images by Art Lien, Jane Collins, other (links below)
You may not realize this if you don’t listen to radio, but there are shows on the NPR end of the dial that regularly spend hours on end haranguing the federal justice system for prohibiting the use of recording devices in courtrooms. Whether we’re discussing the case of South Boston gangster-turned-SoCal surfing champion Whitey Bulger or the current case of admitted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, there is no shortage of acknowledgment that both the media and public are kept in the dark through these ordeals.
In lieu of being able to show readers and TV viewers the actual drama, reporters settle on alternative techniques. First we illustrate with words; while Media Farm has certainly lambasted a few beat writers for their obsessively detailed portrayals of Tsarnaev’s dress and demeanor, there has been some outstanding colorful coverage, especially in the dailies. However, it’s that other go-to device, the courtroom sketch that all too often gets a pass, and that we felt like taking for a walk out back this week.
The biggest problem with sketches: They’re not recorded footage. Nor do they pack the accuracy of stills; rather, each illo is a Rorschach test. Take, for example, one particular image from the jury selection process in January. In it, a sitting Tsarnaev tilts his head slightly downward, his left fist raised and closed except for a slightly extended index finger. He appears to be digging in his collar, the effect presumably intended to show his distress, but it’s also possible to see him as potentially squeezing an imaginary trigger, or motioning to the gallery, “Come at me, bro!”
If he’s not looking tough, slouched and squinting with his hand over his chest as if he were mocking the Pledge of Allegiance, Tsarnaev is a smooth guido pimp in the Theater District, Al Pacino, the evil doppelganger of the Little Prince, or a younger terrorist version of Woody Allen. Oh, and who could forget Kaiju Dzhokhar with the Dragon Ball Z ’do? The look depends on who’s drawing him on what day, and that right there is the problem. We are watching a cartoon of the trial. Sometimes he’s a pudgy abstract blob. What gives?
You’d think that with so many Marathon Bombing truthers and other assorted jackasses looking for excuses to discredit the proceedings, authorities would possibly consider some bend in the rules. Maybe it’s too much to ask for high-definition equipment in 2015, but can we get a Polaroid up in that piece? An old Instamatic? Instead―and none of this is meant to knock the sketch artists themselves―the public has been dealt yet another distraction in a complex case, as was especially demonstrated earlier this month. Instead of suspending court rules and allowing even a single photographer to tail jurors viewing the boat in which Tsarnaev was found, Judge George O’Toole Jr. thought it adequate to string along Jane Flavell Collins, whose courtroom work is legend around here.
Given the circumstances Collins nailed it, even including the name of the vessel: SLIPAWAY. Kind of reminds us of our chances of knowing what this trial actually looks like.
[Media Farm is wrangled by DigBoston News + Features Editor Chris Faraone]