NEW YORK — As Ghislaine Maxwell strode into the courtroom for the first day of her sex-trafficking trial, no photographer was allowed to catch it. Courtroom artist Elizabeth Williams, however, was at the ready and before the hour was up, the curtain-raising scene was transmitted to news outlets around the world.
Cameras are generally prohibited in federal court. And unlike disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — also drawn by Williams but much photographed going to and from his sex-abuse trial — Maxwell was still jailed during her trial, ferried each way out of sight from the press and public.
“I’m basically the substitute camera,” Williams said, emphasizing that she’s “not using artistic license to move anything around.”
Williams has been the public’s eyes in courtrooms since 1980 and has drawn for The Associated Press since 2004, though the typical flurry of courthouse activity slowed during the coronavirus pandemic. Maxwell’s was the first full trial Williams covered from the courtroom itself in the pandemic era, coming right on the heels of R. Kelly’s own sex-trafficking trial over in Brooklyn federal court.
There, the judge had barred media from the courtroom, so Williams was forced to draw the R&B singer and witnesses off monitors in an overflow room, where she said everything was blurry and “the judge’s head was the size of a dime.” At the Manhattan federal courthouse, in contrast, Williams was seated close enough to Maxwell to hear her speak French to her siblings.
Williams has had to hone her news judgment to keep apprised of the moments that will become indelible images. And the sketches are just that, indelible — there’s no room for an eraser in the “whole huge bag of art supplies” she toted into court. She uses brushes, pens and high-quality pastels and estimates she throws out as many as half the sketches she starts.
Over the course of Maxwell’s monthlong trial, which ended with last week’s conviction, Williams says she produced around 100 sketches of witness testimony, attorney arguments, jurors, the judge, spectators and, above all, the defendant herself.
“It’s great when you can draw a trial a lot, because the more you can draw somebody, the better you’re going to get at drawing them,” Williams said, adding that Maxwell “kept a pretty cool persona” that necessitated close study.
Jeffrey Epstein, by contrast, was “incredibly fidgety.” Williams drew Epstein, the ex-boyfriend-turned-employer of Maxwell, at his unsuccessful bail hearings before his 2019 jailhouse suicide.
Here, Williams takes the AP through her sketchpad, coloring in the key moments of Maxwell’s trial with her behind-the-scenes observations:
ARTISTS BECOME SUBJECT
Williams prefers a wall between herself and subjects: “I don’t like to become friendly with anybody I’m drawing. I’m looking at them as they’re a news story to me and I want them to stay that way.”
Maxwell breached that divide, attracting some attention for drawing the courtroom artists themselves. A meta sketch by Reuters artist Jane Rosenberg of Maxwell drawing her even went viral.
Williams said Maxwell was keenly aware of the artists, but it wasn’t initially clear what exactly the defendant was up to on her own pad of paper. Even once Williams discovered the defendant was drawing the artists, she stayed on her side of the divide, doing her own sketch of Maxwell at work but unbothered.
“I was like, ‘OK, that’s fine. Do what you want to. But it’s not going to affect anything I do,’” Williams said.
Williams said Maxwell would occasionally purposefully pose, something that actually served the artist’s purposes.
“It’s much more captivating to have somebody, they’re looking right at the camera, or they’re looking right at the artist, and so people looking at the drawing are seeing somebody looking right at them,” Williams said.
The dynamic continued through the last day of the trial, when Maxwell seemed buoyed by a jury note hours before the verdict.
“There’s this question from the jury about — they wanted the defense testimony of these defense witnesses. And she’s sitting around her chair, and then sometimes she would do this — not very often — but she did it again: She started posing for us,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘OK! All right. If that’s what she wants!’ And that was the picture of the day other than the fact that she got, you know, convicted.”
The prosecution’s case revolved around four accusers, three who testified under pseudonyms or using just first names — Jane, Kate and Carolyn. The courtroom artists were instructed not to draw likenesses, which, for Williams, meant avoiding facial features.
To capture the often emotional testimony, Williams looked elsewhere: “Everybody’s faces are shaped differently. Some faces are more angular, some people’s faces are more round. Jane’s face was certainly rounder than Kate. And Carolyn’s face was more square.”
The hands are another key, she said.
Jane wasn’t that animated while testifying about how Epstein grabbed her, Williams said.
“But she used her hands in such a way,” Williams said. “And I’ve really practiced drawing hands a lot. I mean, you got to be able to draw hands, you have to, especially when you’re drawing a witness where you can’t draw the face, you’ve got to rely on the hands.”
Carolyn’s hands were particularly eye-catching.
“She had all these rings on her fingers and very manicured nails, and very kind of reddish hair. And I thought to myself, you know, if she puts her hand up to her face, money shot there, because that’s going to tell you more about her even than her face could,” Williams said.
ALERT THE PRESS
A courtroom artist has to stay alert for big moments, even when a witness might not seem like a headliner.
An FBI analyst’s testimony yielded one of the more bizarre images from the trial, as prosecutors displayed a photograph the analyst had found that appeared to show Maxwell massaging Epstein’s foot with her breasts.
Williams knew that was her shot, so much so that she had no time to gauge Maxwell’s reaction.
“I have to tell you the truth. When I saw that, I was so focused on getting it down, I thought, I can’t, I couldn’t focus on her. I had to focus on drawing this thing,” she said.
The photographs were shown for what seemed like a maximum of seven seconds, “meaning I’m drawing like the wind.”
A government official sitting in front of Williams even turned around at one point, she said, to commend the way she captured that scene.
THE DEFENSE SQUAD
Maxwell constantly communicated with her lawyers and engaged in daily displays of physical affection with them.
“Oh my God. Hug fest. All those attorneys got hugs,” Williams said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Williams said she did notice Maxwell start to get slightly more agitated as the trial wore on, but her stoicism returned when the verdict was read.
“She put her hand up to kind of her head and her lawyer put his hand on her back,” Williams said. “And that was it. That was it. There was no other reaction.”
That day, there were no hugs for the attorneys as she was ushered out.
FROM LOCKUP TO RUNWAY
Williams began her career as a trained fashion illustrator.
“So Maxwell is right up my alley,” she said. “Whenever she walked into court, with the two U.S. marshals, she always made an entrance like she was walking down a runway, I swear to God.”
Williams said the British socialite made her presence apparent in the way she held herself, arms back, “her swagger, swaying a little bit.”
Her exits could also leave an impression, including her final one as she strode out of the courtroom after the verdict.
“But then when they walked her out, after the verdict, it wasn’t just walking out with those two marshals who brought her in. It was her and then two other big guys,” Williams said, commenting on the contrast between the lithe Maxwell and the burly men. “It was such a theme. And she was walking ahead of them. It was stunning. It was stunning. It was like just, what a finality to the whole thing.”