It’s possible that Bill Robles has covered more high-profile trials in the United States than anyone else on the planet.
The Los Angeles-based illustrator started his career as a television news courtroom artist covering the 1970-71 murder trial of Charles Manson.
Throughout the next 46 years, Robles has lent his pen and paper to the famous trials of Patty Hearst, John DeLorean, the Night Stalker, the Hillside Strangler, Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, the Unabomber, the Menendez Brothers, Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, Robert Blake, Michael Jackson, Donald and Shelly Sterling and Led Zeppelin, among many others.
Robles will be speaking on Thursday, Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. in the Crowell Public Library’s Barth Community Room on the art of court illustration and the trials that he covered, displaying a compilation of work he has accumulated throughout his distinguished career.
“It’s a very unique experience because people really don’t know the history of courtroom drawing,” Robles said.
Because cameras are not allowed into the courtroom in most cases, news organizations rely on courtroom artists to draw the proceedings. Robles grew up in Los Angeles and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in illustration in 1961 from the Art Center College of Design, back when it was located in Hancock Park. He had done commercial illustration work for approximately nine years before he was hired by a local CBS station for freelance art after contacting a former classmate who worked there.
He said he never stepped into a courtroom before and all of a sudden, media from all over the world was at the Charles Manson trial.
“It was a media circus for that time,” Robles said.
He covered both the criminal and civil trials of O.J. Simpson. Even though the O.J. Simpson criminal trial was televised, CBS sent Robles to sketch pictures of the jury.
“They were losing alternate jurors,” Robles said. “One was going to do a book and somebody else was going to do this. It was leading to a possible mistrial because of a lack of alternate jurors, but it resolved itself.”
He would alternate coverage with now “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker. Another notable newsman who Robles worked alongside is current “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley.
As far as his perspective on the O.J. Simpson criminal trial in 1995, Robles said “so guilty.”
Michael Jackson actually requested to meet with Robles during Jackson’s 2005 trial in Santa Maria on child molestation charges.
“He saw the drawing on T.V.,” Robles said. “When I showed him the drawing, he lit up like a candle,” because he liked the drawing so much.
Out of all of the criminal defendants that Robles has seen in court, he said the most frightening was a notorious California serial killer from the 1980s.
“The scariest person who I ever saw in 46 years is the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez,” Robles said. “He terrorized Los Angeles.”
For years Robles balanced his commercial illustration work with his courtroom artist jobs, which were not everyday occurrences unless it was during a trial.
He also taught at both Art Center College of Design and Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Robles earned a gold medal from the Los Angeles Art Directors Club for his coverage of the Manson trial and three gold medals from the Broadcast Designers Association. The Emmy-nominated artist was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Society of Illustrators in 2003.
The Library of Congress acquired all of Robles’ original artwork in 2016 from the book, “The Illustrated Courtroom, 50 Years of Courtroom Art.” The book’s cover art features a sketch by Robles of Manson charging toward the judge’s bench as a bailiff subdues him at his trial. Robles is one of five courtroom artists featured in the book written by Elizabeth Williams and Sue Russell. He will have the book available for purchase after he speaks at the Crowell Public Library.