Capturing the face of the accused


Courtroom artist Mike O’Donnell usually has only a minute or so to sketch a defendant in a trial. The trick, he says, is to read the body language, and look closely at the eyes

THE SIGHT of a bus speeding towards Mike O’Donnell as he was knocked off his bike sparked an epiphany. “I thought, ‘If I walk away from this, I have to make something of myself.’” Within weeks, O’Donnell began sitting in on the murder trial of Eamonn Lillis as a courtroom artist, his work appearing in media outlets nationwide.

O’Donnell always felt a tinge of regret in forsaking his pursuit of art to become a primary school teacher but the 42-year-old Kerryman insists that switching careers wasn’t simply a whim. He began slipping into courtrooms at 18, sketching away without even knowing whether it was permitted. It was only when Dublin’s new Criminal Courts of Justice complex, designed to shelter prisoners on remand from media intrusion, opened in November 2009 that he recognised an opportunity for an artist who can capture someone’s “essence” in 90 seconds.

That’s the maximum amount of time O’Donnell will glimpse a defendant during their initial appearance in court. Those moments, he says, are enough to pick up subtleties not always evident in photos, such as presence.

“I had the privilege of shaking hands with Bill Clinton and he had such charisma that you felt energised. Yet one particular paedophile I sketched was the opposite: his presence was so draining it was like anti-matter. I’ve seen people who you assume would be capable of terrible things but this was like looking into an abyss.”

The trick is to read someone’s body language, with pencil poised, until their demeanour settles. It’s a practice O’Donnell has refined by observing people wherever he goes, developing his “visual vocabulary” as if it were any other language.

“You start noticing defendants who don’t appear fully conscious of what’s going on. They’re either living in another space or they’ve been over the whole thing so much that they’re resigned. While my challenge is to capture that, I find the work stands or falls on my depiction of the eyes.”

O’Donnell’s fascination with how the eye reveals, conceals and reacts is explored on his website, where he compares the eyes of everyday people with those of his most notorious cases.

“You know The Bone Collector? Well, I’m the eye collector,” he says, laughing. “The more I look into it, the more it mystifies me.” There’s a responsibility, he explains, in providing the only visual clue as to what’s happening inside the court to the outside world.

“If you accidentally depict someone as too benign or too malign, you run the risk of misrepresentation. So if you create a monster out of someone in the public eye, they may not get a fair trial. I drew Catherine Nevin during her appeal [of a murder conviction] and as I went out, a journalist said to me, ‘did you get her evil eye?’ As it happens, she reminded me of the mother of an old friend, so I recognised that look well.”

The courts are clearly O’Donnell’s soap opera. Though he’s softly spoken, every point is illustrated with two anecdotes which he breezes through with relish. People constantly ask whether he takes sides, whether his perspective gives him any insight into the justice system. “It’s a fantastic arena and you do find yourself tuning in,” he says. “But I’ve heard a lot of things and I’m aware that each side has astute practitioners of the law, so I’m not easily swayed.”

O’Donnell is at his most animated when recounting the moments he felt part of the ensemble: the intense eye contact with convicted killers, the brothel owner who left the dock to sit beside him and compliment his work (“I was mortified”) or when Judge Paul Carney addressed him across a teeming courtroom.

“He advised that I shouldn’t publish the drawing as it was an incest case, but he did say I was continuing an age-old tradition that he had every regard for, which meant a lot to me.”

Recognition is important to O’Donnell. By sitting in on courts, whipping out a scanner and sending off his sketches in hope to various publications, he believes he has finally found a way to validate the artistic skills his father nurtured in him — even if technology may eventually erode that niche.

“If the demand for what I do is dispensed with, I’ll think of something else. But I’m committed to this for as long as it makes sense to do so. . . because I love it.”

Courtroom Drama

John Aylmar SC and Una NÍ Raifeartaigh SC

“This was during the murder trial of Warren Graham. Both are senior counsel and they’re familiar figures in the Central Criminal Court. I thought they were quite a photogenic pair and easy to capture, particularly as they’re in profile. When Warren Graham was awaiting the jury’s return he came over to me and admired my drawings. He and a friend of his, both very polite, asked if they were for sale. He was convicted of murder the following morning.”

‘A sinister crime’

“Mark Doyle, left, was a serial rapist who threatened to chop up the baby of one of his victims. It was a sinister crime, yet the media had no photographic access to him, so he did everything he could to avoid being sketched. He had to face the judge anyway and I managed to get this profile view. I didn’t have much time, so it’s a good example of the 90-second window I need.”

'. . . indicated no remorse'

“Gary Kinsella, was a soldier convicted of a particularly vicious rape. His demeanour indicated no remorse, in my mind. I think it’s important that cases like this are exposed because they are a danger to society, so I feel a responsibility in that sense. You come across fairly innocent and benign-looking people but they can be guilty of the most horrendous crimes. I was disappointed this picture was never published because I think it really captured him.”

Martin Conmey Appeal: Brendan Grehan SC, Hugh Hartnett SC and Michael O’Higgins SC

“This involved a famous case dating back to the early 1970s where a young civil servant was killed. Three men were originally charged. One of them, Martin Conmey, was convicted of manslaughter, served his sentence but appealed his conviction. Last July, his conviction was successfully overturned. Brendan Grehan is one of the best known criminal lawyers. He can win over juries not only with his presentation of facts, but with his use of language and fantastic charisma. What’s unique about this is that I was allowed to sit in the jury’s bench, as there was no jury, so I could get them all together.”

Military Court Martial of Comdt Niall (Nile) Donohoe in McKee Barracks

“The extraordinary thing about this trial was that there was no prior notice of the charge sheet. It was a real event: all the brass were there and you could nearly smell the polish. It was extremely tense and far more formal than anything you’d see in the criminal courts, which was why the charge seemed surprisingly minor in my eyes when it was read out. It concerned a commandant who allegedly called his superior a ‘p***k’ at his annual review and it was pursued with vigour. It was special for me because I understand this was the first time a court artist was in the military courts.”