Sketching the country's most notorious criminals

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courtroom sketch artist orig_00000000

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Story highlights

  • Bill Robles has attended the trials of Patti Hearst, Michael Jackson, OJ Simpson and more
  • Robles got his start as a courtroom sketch artist at the trial of Charles Manson
Watch "Face of Evil: The Charles Manson Murders" at 9 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday on CNN.

(CNN)His eyes have studied the faces of some of the most notorious criminals in America. His hands know almost every mark, freckle and hairdo of those who have appeared in courtrooms from Los Angeles to Oklahoma.

Heiress Patty Hearst. Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. O.J. Simpson. Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker. The Menendez brothers. Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.
For 45 years, Bill Robles has stared into the eyes of the accused and the convicted, trying to capture their likeness. It's his job as a courtroom sketch artist.
    "We're a necessary evil," he says. "When [the courts] don't allow the camera, you're the king."
    He's had a front row seat to some of the biggest courtroom dramas in American history, selling his sketches to television stations when the courts refuse to allow cameras in to capture what is happening.
    He remembers small details about these big cases:
    Heiress Patty Hearst "was a petite little thing in this huge federal court."
    Dustin Hoffman "won more than a million dollars, but you wouldn't know it by his expression."
    Serial killer Richard Ramirez "had huge hands. He was by far the scariest person I've ever encountered."
    But his foray into what has become a professional niche, a job shared by very few people, all started with what many call the "Trial of the Century."
    When his trial started on  June 16, 1970, Charles Manson appeared with an "X" cut into his forehead.
    "I had been an illustrator in the advertising field, doing everything from aerospace to advertising to schoolbooks, and then the Manson murders came up," Robles says.
    The year was 1969. Los Angeles residents -- the rich and famous in particular -- were panicked after the murders of seven people. Among the dead were eight months' pregnant actress Sharon Tate and coffee heiress Abigail Folger. Their stabbings were followed by the shooting deaths of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.
    By 1970, the trial of cult leader Charles Manson and three of his female followers, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, had begun. Robles was there; CBS had hired him to be its courtroom sketch artist.
    "It was a first time for everything. First time in a courtroom, first courtroom trial, first high profile trial and the longest trial that I ever had," Robles remembers. "Nine and a half months every day. And it was a worldwide story. I mean, Truman Capote was there."
    In all his years of covering trials, Robles says he's never seen another trial like it. Manson would have staring contests with the reporters and the jury. He even caught Robles' eye one day.
    "I had to look away; it was creepy." And then there were the orchestrated disruptions by the defendants.
    "The girls would have outbursts. He would have occasional outbursts. They would all do the same thing and copy him. One time they removed him from the courtroom and put him a holding cell, behind a locked door with a little screen," Robles says. "At one point he was agitated and (said) something to the effect of 'Somebody ought to cut your head off, judge' ... And before you knew it, Bingo! He was leaping toward the judge. The bailiff tackled him in midair."
    Robles had no idea just how many trials he would go on to sketch that would grab the public's attention around the world.
    Michael Jackson waves to  fans as he leaves the Santa Barbara County Courthouse after being acquitted of all charges in his child molestation trial on June 13, 2005.
    He saw the biggest crowds when Michael Jackson was indicted on child molestation charges; his trial ended in his acquittal.
    "They had a lottery for the public to get in," Robles says. "There were people from Holland, Spain, Russia -- all over Europe at that trial. And every morning, they would have a drawing, and these lucky few would get into the courtroom."
    At one point during the trial, Jackson noticed Robles' work.
    "He saw a drawing that I did of Michael and his two attorneys on television, and he liked it. So his lawyer approached me -- (said) that Michael wanted to meet me."
    During one of the breaks, the lawyer took Robles into the hall and introduced him to Jackson. Robles showed him the drawing.
    "He lit up like a candle when he saw it. ... After that he changed his pose a little more where I could see him."
    Robles' drawings did manage to land him in small court battle once during the O.J. Simpson civil trial. The jury was supposed to remain anonymous throughout the trial for their own safety, so Robles drew them without faces. His drawings -- one in particular of the full jury -- alarmed Judge Lance Ito anyway.
    "He saw the drawing on air, and he said he was astonished by the accuracy. So I was subpoenaed," Robles says.
    The judge decided all further sketches would have to be stamped for approval before they could be handed over to the television news cameras.
    Rodney King pleads to rioters to make peace on May 1, 1992 in Los Angeles, California.
    Robles says he wasn't afraid during the trial of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King. He recalls the day he walked in to court and noticed the reporters had flak jackets on; there were police snipers perched on top of buildings watching and waiting for the jury's decision and the public's response.
    Robles walked into court the same way he always did, clutching his sketch pad and his trusty Pentel Rolling Writer pen. There was work to be done and nothing was going to scare him away from that.
    "The beauty of it [the job] is I can do what I want the way I want to do it."