Courtroom sketch artist emerges as sharp-eyed reporter

CHICAGO Now the sharp-witted courtroom sketch artist whose drawings from Chicago's biggest trials appear regularly on ABC affiliate WLS-TV has proven she's also a good reporter -- penning a book crammed with drama and inside stories from the gritty world of criminal trials.

"I always wanted to write a book and I found myself living in the middle of all this incredibly exciting material," says Austin, whose book, "Rule 53," was published by Lake Claremont Press.

The title of the book came naturally. Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure bars anyone from bringing a camera into a courtroom, but guarantees TV sketch artists at least some measure of security.

The world of courts is a huge part of Austin's life -- not just a job.

"I love the eavesdropping and keeping notes and coming home at night and figuring out the high points of the day," says Austin.

Probably no one would have predicted when she graduated from Vassar College, that the gentle, soft-spoken Boston debutante someday would consort with murderers and thugs. But after an odyssey that led through Florence and Vienna, she found herself in Chicago with time on her hands.

So she took her sketch pad to a Chicago hearing of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Emotions were running high over the panel, which claimed its job was to root out communists while critics said its investigations were "witch hunts" that threw fairness to the wind.

Austin wasn't allowed in. But a cameraman sneaked her in a back door.

Next came the trial of antiwar activists, called the Chicago 7, following the turmoil of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when Chicago police chased demonstrators through clouds of pepper gas in the city's streets and parks.

Austin wasn't allowed to sit with the sketch artists at first. But she appealed to U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman and he gave her special permission -- even though no one was paying her to be there.

One day, the ABC network sketch artist announced that he was leaving for another assignment and Austin overheard legendary WLS reporter Hugh Hill thundering that he had to have an artist for next day's proceedings.

"I can draw," Austin remembers telling Hill. "Hire me."

Her courtroom sketches have been a WLS fixture ever since.

There was plenty to draw at the Chicago 7 trial -- hippies who showed up in judicial robes, a pint-sized judge who looked to Austin "like a freshly hatched bird," a Black Panther leader bound to his chair and gagged.

She quickly found herself getting along with all kinds of people at the trial -- prosecutors, defendants and defense attorneys alike.

One day, defendant Abbie Hoffman -- self styled leader of the Youth International Party, an apostle of drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll and outspoken foe of the Vietnam War -- passed a note to Austin.

A marshal intercepted the note, read it, smiled and passed it along.

"What's a nice girl like you doing in a corrupt society like this?" Hoffman wrote.

Austin's love of shoes once turned out to be helpful. (She once had 85 pairs but recently whittled that number down to about 50).

As a young sketch artist, she noticed that a young federal prosecutor, Ilana Diamond Rovner, also had a large number of shoes that she admired. Their mutual interest turned into a friendship and Rovner, now a federal appeals judge, ended up marrying Austin and husband Ted Cohen.

The couple lives in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago where he is a philosophy professor and an authority on jokes.

Austin's book sometimes goes beyond the courtroom to follow police in their work.

Working from newspaper accounts and what police whispered to her, she takes readers along on a freezing night just before Christmas in 1978 as police inched their way into the reeking crawl space under serial killer John Wayne Gacy's front porch.

In describing the Gacy trial, she recounts in detail not only the horror of the bodies police found buried under the porch, but the constantly moving hands of defense psychiatrist Lawrence Z. Freedman as he plumbed the depths of perversion and aggression swirling in the murderer's mind.

"He did a sort of vivisection on the soul of John Wayne Gacy and exposed the confusion deep inside," she writes in a chapter on the case.

Other chapters focus on the federal government's efforts to break up the big El Rukns street gang, the case of mob hit man Harry Aleman and the trial of corrupt Criminal Court Judge Thomas Maloney.

Much of the book involves the triumphs and travails of William Hogan, known as one of Chicago's hardest-working and most competent federal prosecutors.

His career was seriously damaged when the El Rukns case unraveled amid charges that government witnesses who had been gang members were able to get drugs while in custody. Hogan was fired by the Justice Department.

But the final chapter of Austin's book tells how he was vindicated and restored to his position in the U.S. attorney's office following a government hearing that concluded he was not to blame for the problems.

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge William J. Bauer, one of many longtime Austin friends who wear black robes, says he usually reads four books at a time but read "Rule 53" straight through without picking up another book.

"She took a completely objective view of what she was writing about," says the former chief of judge of the appeals court.

Austin says that she tries to be realistic and objective. She says there's no place for preaching and flatly refuses to heap scorn on criminal defendants -- no matter what they have done. She just draws what she sees.

Another secret: she gets along with people.

"I like people," she says. "And I think people like to be liked."

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