Beyond Vassar

Courtroom Artist: Andy Austin

By Mally Anderson '10

How does a Vassar English major end up spending 30 years as a courtroom artist for ABC News? Ann (Andy) Collier Cohen ’57 (known professionally as Andy Austin) is still surprised at the way her life turned out. Austin always loved writing and initially planned to be a journalist, but a trip to Europe the summer after graduation changed her mind.


“I never planned to be an artist at all,” says Austin, who did not take art or art history at Vassar. Her plans to begin graduate work in Latin American studies at UC Berkeley promptly submitted to the charms of Tuscany. She didn’t feel ready to return to the United States and devised a plan that would allow her to remain in Europe. “I needed to convince my parents that I needed to stay,” she says, and so she invented the idea of studying art in Florence.

Soon she discovered a passion for drawing that had never extended beyond doodling in her notebooks. Her time in Florence led to two more years of art school once she returned home to Chicago. She then married and had two children — and quickly realized she didn’t like working at home. “I wanted to be out in the world, drawing the things around me,” she says.

“A newspaper person told me, ‘Everybody can write, but not many people can draw; so, if you’re interested in journalism, you should be an artist,’” Austin recalls. The first case she covered was the Chicago Seven case, in which seven men were charged with conspiracy, inciting to riot, and other violent acts at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. At the trial, sketching for herself, Austin overheard a conversation between an ABC reporter and his courtroom artist, who needed to leave town that evening to cover another high-profile trial — the Ted Kennedy-Chappaquiddick Bridge accident. Austin approached the ABC reporter and was hired that day. She remembers the trial as being quite dramatic and frightening, with one defendant bound and gagged in the courtroom in front of her. The high-pressure experience left a lasting impact, and for six months after the trial, she didn’t cover any more cases. “I never wanted to go into a courtroom again,” says Austin. After some time passed, though, she began to realize that being a courtroom artist was a great way to combine her desires to draw and be a journalist, and she was soon convinced by ABC News to continue working.

John Wayne Gacy Jr. at his trial in 1981
John Wayne Gacy Jr. at his trial in 1981
Austin has covered every high-profile court case in Chicago since the Chicago Seven trial, including the cases of serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. and three Illinois governors, in addition to several terrorism and murder cases. Most recently she worked on the trial of financier Conrad Black, who was convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice. “Being in court, listening to testimony and arguments, is fascinating,” says Austin. The long trial process generates something of a community feeling, she adds, “and being a part of that community every day, hearing the different takes and arguments, and wondering what the decision will be is just riveting.”

In addition to her courtroom duties, Austin has fulfilled her old dream of becoming a writer. This year, Austin’s book, Rule 53: Capturing Hippies, Spies, Politicians, and Murderers in an American Courtroom (Lake Claremont Press, 2008), comes out, detailing 11 prosecutions she covered over the course of her career; the book also contains Austin’s drawings. She started the book more than 20 years ago in the form of notes on the edges of her sketchbook pages. “Sketches are wonderful material for stories,” she said. “But the sketches themselves can’t possibly tell the whole story of these fascinating trials and people. It’s something I always felt I had to do.” Fifty years after graduation, it seems her English major has finally been put to good use.