A Courtside Seat To History
The “Underwear Bomber” is just the latest defendant courtroom artist Carole Kabrin has drawn for TV news.
Courtroom artist Carole Kabrin doesn’t joke about the ineffectual Underwear Bomber — Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
The radical Islamist terrorist, aboard a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, attempted unsuccessfully to ignite powerful plastic explosives hidden in his privies just before the plane landed, burning himself in the process.
“I’m sitting in court drawing him, and I couldn’t comprehend what would motivate a 25-year-old, well-educated man from a nice, well-to-do Nigerian family to feel so much hate in his heart,” she said.
“So much hate that he would seek out Al Qaida for the purpose of attacking the United States — and choose Christmas morning to bring down a plane, killing himself and nearly 300 people on board and, no doubt, little children in their homes below, opening their presents.”
Kabrin, a native Detroiter and a graduate of Southfield High and Wayne State University, has been one of the country’s most prominent courtroom artists for the past 36 years. She had a front-row seat for the Underwear Bomber’s trial in Detroit Federal Court last month.
“I take my role as an artist-reporter very seriously and don’t judge the guilt or innocence of a defendant,” she said. “I strive to be like a camera in places where cameras are forbidden. I’ve refused the occasional suggestion from a TV news producer to make a criminal defendant look ‘uglier.’ And likewise, I can’t let my personal feelings come through in my artwork.”
During her career, Kabrin witnessed it all. She’s covered terrorist trials before — those of Oklahoma City federal building bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
“The only time I broke down and cried in court is when I heard the descriptions of the child victims in the day care center,” she said. “Tears mixed with my makeup, and it was all over — I couldn’t see.”
Kabrin has covered the trials of prominent and controversial figures, including deposed Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, renegade automaker John DeLorean and heavyweight champ/rape defendant Mike Tyson.
She found Noriega and Tyson charismatic and friendly. “Noriega used to wave at me,” Kabrin said. “I was probably one of the only people that was nice to him.
“Leaders like Noriega and Kwame are very personable. That’s how politicians get in office. When you meet Kwame, you have to like him. But watching him in court, I also saw his arrogant side.”
The unrepentant Underwear Bomber, who chose to act as his own attorney, pleaded guilty at the beginning of his trial and will spend the rest of his life in a federal penitentiary. But he took advantage of the limelight, spewing propaganda when reporters were present.
The defendant expressed his contempt for America throughout the proceedings.
At one point, during jury selection, the judge was with prospective jury members on another floor of the courthouse and visible to the defendant only by closed-circuit TV. Unbeknownst to the judge, he propped his feet up on the table in an Islamic display of disrespect. His assisting attorney, Anthony Chambers, told him to remove his feet. In a separate incident, with the judge in the courtroom, the defendant did not stand as requested. The judge ordered him to do so, and he immediately complied.
Kabrin saw the irony of an Islamist terrorist on trial before a Jewish female judge, Nancy Edmunds, while being drawn by a Jewish female artist.
“At the trial, Umar looked at me twice with a long gaze,” Kabrin said. “I hear he doesn’t look at women, but I think he was wondering what I was doing as I stared at him while I drew. I found myself turning away from his intense gaze because I wasn’t sure how to deal with him. On one hand, compassion for a young man in big trouble, on the other hand, confusion how to deal with his hate.”
Kabrin sold the drawings to CNN, Fox News Channel and Reuters as well as Detroit TV stations and the Middle East-based news channel Aljazeera.
For 12 years, she worked exclusively for ABC News, covering major trials and the U.S. Supreme Court. She also covered President Bill Clinton’s sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones and the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case that settled the 2000 presidential election.
Cameras In The Courtroom
How does Kabrin feel about the prevalence of TV cameras appearing in most non-federal courtrooms?
“I consider myself both a journalist and an artist,” she said. “Thus, I feel mixed. As a journalist, I’m thrilled to see the courts opened up to live coverage. As a courtroom artist, of course, this means my profession could disappear.”
Kabrin still has plenty of business. She’s sold many of her drawings to attorneys and judges, even criminal defendants. Attorneys proudly hang the TV news-like “action” drawings in their offices and post them on their websites. She does commissioned portraits not only of attorneys, but also of other professionals, children and families. She’s taught figure drawing at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit for the past eight years.
Kabrin realized as a college student that courtroom drawing was her calling. She spent thousands of her spare hours teaching herself to draw fast and earned a master’s of arts degree in drawing at WSU.
“In covering a trial,” she said, “you need the news judgment to decide what’s important, and you have to draw very, very quickly. You work in a frenzy.” Kabrin draws with charcoal and provides color with pastels.
During her career, Kabrin won an Emmy in Detroit for her work with WXYZ-TV. Nationally, ABC News flew her all over the country, and often she would be away from home for months at a time covering a trial. Was it worth it?
“I love television,” she said. “I loved having my artwork on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Nightline and Good Morning America.
“But most of all, I love to draw.”
The courtroom art of Carole Kabrin is currently on display on the second floor of the Theodore Levin Federal Courthouse, 231 W. Lafayette, Detroit. Other examples of her work can be found on her website, theprofessionalportrait.com.
Story by David Sachs | Senior Copy Editor