Friday, May 16, 2008

Rule 53

Andy Austin has dedicated the past 40 years to a life in crime.

Neither notorious suspect nor mob mole, she has played her part in the era’s highest profile cases—John Wayne Gacy’s among them—as Channel 7’s courtroom artist, with her sketches appearing on the nightly news. Her new book, Rule 53, takes its title from the federal statute that prohibits photography or the broadcasting of courtroom proceedings, and in it, Austin trades in the colored-pencil portraits for a captivating blend of trial transcripts, reporting and personal musings on the war waged daily between right and wrong.

An artist during the helter-skelter ’60s, Austin felt the action was not in painting “rotten oranges and apples in a makeshift [dining room] studio,” she says, but in the streets where momentous political, racial and sexual upheavals were under way. She wanted to exchange her still-life existence for the allure of trials.

When the artist assigned to the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial had another assignment, the young, normally shy Austin sensed her breakout moment and announced her talent to Channel 7 reporter Hugh Hill. She was hired on the spot and learned on the job. She nearly walked away from it, though, after a string of politically charged, occasionally violent cases left her rattled. But an ABC colleague, the late Jim Gibbons, lured her back. It was during one of the biggest cases of her career, the 1980 trial of serial killer Gacy, that she began keeping her courthouse journals.

“What I heard every day was so gruesome,” says Austin, “that I started writing just to preserve my sanity and keep my head together.”

Rule 53 spotlights ten trials and several posttrial proceedings, including the Chicago 8 fiasco, two Chicago mob prosecutions, the gangland El Rukns, corrupt judge Thomas Maloney and infamous mob hit man Harry Aleman. When we spoke with her, she was neck deep, sketching the most notorious case in recent memory: the Tony Rezko trial. While Austin sees courtroom drama as “the great bazaar of American life,” the book reads most clearly as a morality play, with the court holding center stage and hosting a fascinating cast of lawyers, low-lifes and once-high-fliers.

Occasionally, Austin herself plays a role in the show. She drew the attention of several defendants, including Abbie Hoffman, who slipped her a note wondering, “What’s a good-looking girl like you doing in a corrupt society like this?” A henchman of the El Rukns once warned her while she sketched a defendant, “You draw his wife, he breaks your legs.” (She wisely refrained.)

The transcripts’ cinema-verité style makes for a gripping portrayal of courtroom drama. The El Rukns and Maloney trials are particularly vivid page-turners and incisive feats of distillation and narrative drive. Austin continually creates riveting personality portraits of defendants, judges and prosecutors. A dead-on sketch of 1970s style reads: “Those were the days of roaring bad taste…when politicians wore enormous pinky rings and cufflinks, mobsters wore black silk shirts under white ties and a well-known Irish-American defense lawyer sported a bright Kelly green suit.” Austin also has razor-sharp hearing, ever on the snoop for telltale clues, like the repartee between lawyers: “What are you here for?” and the reply, “Just shit, what else?”

True to Austin’s calling, Rule 53 provides a balanced reenactment of a tumultuous period in Chicago’s legal life that seems more faithful to the issues and players involved than the episodic take of daily journalism.

“I don’t feel much moral outrage,” says Austin, of her time spent next to criminals. “I must say that political corruption is beginning to disgust me after having covered the Ryan and now the Rezko case.”

Thanks to Tom Mullaney

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