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Capturing the downfall of Wall Street’s criminals on canvas

Chiesi is best remembered for comparing the feeling of passing illegal information to an orgasm.

By: New York Times |
April 20, 2014 12:20:54 am

Bernard L Madoff was handcuffed and whisked into a cell. Michael R Milken, head in palm, wept. Martha Stewart simply stared straight ahead.

If not for one person, these moments might be lost to memory. But when the mighty stumble, the court illustrator captures it forever. For Elizabeth Williams, who has spent more than three decades depicting criminals in court through her drawings, the job is a study of character.

Williams has covered the trials of terrorists and murderers, but she finds white-collar criminals the most fascinating. “I think it’s the greatest soap opera there ever was,” she said.

Williams has drawn notorious Wall Street criminals, including Ivan F Boesky, one of the world’s most powerful financiers in the 1980s, who was convicted of masterminding Wall Street’s biggest insider trading scandal, and Raj Rajaratnam, the hedge fund manager and Sri Lanka’s richest man, who was at the heart of a network of insider traders in the 2000s.

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“To get so far in life, you’d think these fellows have to be really smart — and then they do things that completely defy what they are about,” Williams said.

Her drawings are often the only recorded images from these trials. Federal courtrooms are one of the few places left where, until recently, cameras were not allowed. A few courts have experimented with allowing cameras, but most trials remain closed to photographers.

Together with Sue Russell, Williams has written The Illustrated Courtroom: 50 Years of Court Art, which brings together the work of five courtroom illustrators who chronicled famous trials of the last half-century, including those of David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam”; Charles Manson; the Watergate burglars; and O J Simpson. The artists — Howard Brodie, Aggie Kenny, Bill Robles, Richard Tomlinson and Williams — have brought financial chieftains, psychopaths and petty criminals to life for the world outside the courtroom.


Williams started her career as a fashion illustrator. The work paid little, and she soon turned to court sketching at the suggestion of a teacher. In a chance meeting, Williams met Robles, already a well-known courtroom illustrator, at a trial and he gave her the introduction she needed.

The Wall Street soap opera witnessed by Williams over the years has been filled with a colourful cast of defendants, including beauty queens, domestic divas and presumed upstanding community leaders. Consider Danielle Chiesi, an analyst who was caught on tape by the FBI passing illegal tips to Rajaratnam.

“Being in her presence is memorable,” Williams said, recalling the former beauty queen’s pink silk sleeveless dress, matching pink pumps and pearls that she wore on the day of her sentencing. “It was so out of place for court.”


Chiesi is best remembered for comparing the feeling of passing illegal information to an orgasm.

Williams also captured the moment when Robert W Moffat Jr, one of Chiesi’s lovers and a former senior executive at IBM,  sobbed as he was sentenced to six months in prison while his disabled wife and children looked on. “You can’t be faint of heart in this job — you’ve got to get these moments,” she said.

On March 12, 2009, in the split second after Madoff admitted to running a $65 billion Ponzi scheme, the judge remanded him, and courtroom guards swooped in to handcuff him and take him away. Williams was the first to catch it on her canvas. Later, outside the courthouse, she ran into one of Madoff’s victims, a woman in her late 30s, who touched the image, telling Williams, “That’s just what I wanted to see.”

There is one character who still baffles Williams — the one who commits a crime for no financial benefit. Rajat Gupta, the former global chairman of McKinsey & Co and a former director of Goldman Sachs, was sentenced to prison for tipping his friend Rajaratnam off about a $5 billion investment that Warren E Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway planned to make in Goldman. Rajaratnam pocketed $900,000 from trading on the tip.

For his crime, Gupta received two years in prison. “He didn’t do it for money,” Williams said. “How do you wrap your head around that?” In her collection of drawings is an image of Gupta embracing his wife and four daughters after the jury announced its guilty verdict.


Flipping through the three decades of courtroom drawings by Williams, one gets the sense that history repeats itself. The actors change, but the characters stay the same.

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First published on: 20-04-2014 at 12:20:54 am
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