Where cameras are forbidden Courtroom artist's work on display in City Hall

June 18, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Because Maryland bars cameras from courtrooms, much of what the public sees of newsworthy trials is framed by the quick hand and judicious eye of artist Beth Otter.

At its debut last week, a City Hall exhibit of Maryland courtroom drawings, "Otter in the Court," attracted many legal world regulars, judges and lawyers who enjoyed seeing themselves captured in action.

"It's just fun to identify the people you know without looking at the captions," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Dana M. Levitz at a preview June 11. He said the sketch of city Circuit Judge Evelyn O. Cannon presiding was especially striking: "That's just her!"

Otter, a 41-year-old Baltimorean, said the 113 drawings on display were done under daily deadline pressure for television news reports over the past five years: "I must love pressure."

The exhibit, in the first-floor gallery at City Hall, is free and open to the public. It runs through June 26.

Her deft trial drawings -- done with pencil, chalk and markers -- capture all manner of criminals and other courtroom characters. Poker-faced juries, sullen defendants, a woman making a victim-impact statement, lawyers giving closing arguments: All are there.

"Every trial has its own cast," said Baltimore County prosecutor James O'C. Gentry Jr., pointing out one he remembered well: Baltimore police Sgt. James Allan Kulbicki, convicted of killing his girlfriend, Gina Marie Nueslein.

Because most of Otter's scenes are from sensational murder trials, a pensive mood pervades the galleries.

"These are tragic moments in Baltimore history," said news videographer Bill Fink of WMAR-TV as he looked around the room. For him, the most haunting memory the exhibit brought back was the trial in the 1992 killing of Pam Basu during a carjacking.

Otter also drew two of this year's most chilling cases: the Montgomery County trial of Ruth-ann Aron, tried on charges of hiring a man to kill her husband, and the Baltimore County child abuse and murder trial for the death of 9-year-old Rita Fisher.

A defendant in the Fisher case, Frank E. Scarpola Jr., is drawn on the witness stand with his red boxing gloves, introduced into evidence, in front of him.

Other infamous faces in the gallery included Jeffrey A. Levitt, convicted in 1986 of theft in the Old Court Savings and Loan scandal, and his wife, Karol Levitt.

Patricia C. Jessamy, Baltimore's state's attorney, praised Otter's artwork for its emotional range and intensity.

Of fellow lawyers, Jessamy said in jest, "They know they have not arrived until they've been depicted in Beth's drawings."

Otter, who graduated in 1981 from the Maryland Institute, College of Art, contrasted her student days of "truth and beauty in art school, the ancient Greek ideal," with her current occupation, involving "the worst that human nature has to offer."

She said her form of documentary artwork is becoming more of a "lost genre," because Maryland is one of the few states that bars cameras from courtrooms.

In any case, she added, "I'd rather be sculpting."

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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