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Sketch artist drawn to high-profile trials

The work of Peter Cowie has brought scenes from bay area courtrooms - of Sami Al-Arian, the Schiavo family and the Rev. Henry Lyons - to the world.

Published June 19, 2005

[Image by Peter Cowie
Peter Cowie is the artist at the trial of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian. In this sketch, Al-Arian, right, is shown with three co-defendants, Hatim Fariz, back left, Sameeh Hammoudeh, back right, and Ghassan Ballut, lower left, during opening statements on June 7 at the U.S. Courthouse in Tampa.
 Among the other high-profile proceedings that Peter Cowie has covered was this hearing involving Bob Schindler, the father of Terri Schiavo, seen at lower left. Schindler’s attorney was seeking to have Terri’s feeding tube reinserted.
[Image by Peter Cowie

Peter Cowie sketched his first court case more than 30 years ago.  

TAMPA - Sami Al-Arian does not know Peter Cowie. But Peter Cowie knows Sami Al-Arian. His smile. His look of confidence and calm. The way he turns sideways to confer with his attorney.

Day in and day out, Cowie, 58, peers over a pair of gold-rimmed eyeglasses, studying every detail of a man the federal government says is a terrorist. His hands scan the width of a sheet of paper as he sketches, with pastels and markers, Al-Arian's likeness.

Al-Jazeera and CNN want copies. NBC and the Associated Press, too. Only through the St. Petersburg man's eyes will the world get a glimpse inside a 13th-floor downtown Tampa courtroom, the scene of one of the most high-profile terrorism trials since Sept. 11, 2001.

This is Cowie's life for the next six months. Maybe more.

* * *

The skies, he says, were bluer there. You notice things like that where Cowie grew up, in a little region called Toco, where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic Ocean. There were no televisions to help fill the day. There wasn't even any electricity. Just nature. And colors. Bright colors.

It allowed Cowie to "get close to his thoughts," he says. "I didn't have anything to do but just look at things around me."

He started putting those thoughts on paper when he was 6. Whatever came to mind, he drew it. He is not sure why he started drawing, just that he did.

"He was always drawing," his mother, Isabel Duncan, now 86, says.

On the backs of mirrors. In dictionaries. Duncan's medical notebooks.

"If I had a sharp pencil," Cowie says, "I just had to do something with it."

When he was 8, he made a portrait of his mother. Cowie does not have the piece anymore, but he remembers that his mother was lying down. It was the first time he says he drew "from life . . . I started to look at real things to draw them.

"I'd look at things and look at the paper and it was almost as if I was tracing what I was seeing," Cowie says, eyes closed, his hands moving in the air as if he was retracing the drawing. "I know there wasn't actually anything on the paper, but I felt almost as though I was tracing over an image that was projected on the paper."

Schoolmates begged Cowie for portraits. Teachers did, too. They did not pay, he says.

"Oh, no," he says. "I was drawing it on the notebook with the ruled paper. You know?"

* * *

Cowie, the realist, knew there was no money to be made as an artist. Not in Trinidad.

"There was no such thing as an artist making a living," he says. "They had fine arts, but it was almost a recreational kind of thing."

He turned his attention to other passions: Psychology and anthropology. He remembers coming across an article about intelligence that ranked the races by IQ. It did not seem fair, he says, and he wanted to know how the study's authors reached their conclusions.

He wanted to study the subjects abroad. He considered England and Argentina. Cowie settled on Eugene, Ore. He says he came across the University of Oregon while scanning a set of encyclopedias. He headed there on a student visa after finishing high school in 1964.

Still, he took art classes. On the side, he says. When he graduated from Oregon in 1969, he found himself in San Francisco at the Academy of Art College. It was while there that he sketched his first court case. The defendant? The Black Panther Party's Huey Newton.

"He looked friendly," Cowie says. "If you were a policeman, he might not be your friend."

* * *

Neighbors told his mother and stepfather about a place in west-central Florida called St. Petersburg. Albert Duncan liked fishing and moved here in 1974. Cowie followed. He wastaking art classes at Tomlinson Adult Education Center when, in 1980, a call from WTSP-Ch. 10 came. They were looking for a courtroom sketch artist. At that time, every station had one.

Cowie's teacher, Nancy Williams, arranged a meeting with the news director. He carried a drawing pad and a pencil.

The news director told Cowie to draw him. He was a little fidgety as a subject, Cowie says.

"I guess he was satisfied," he says. "He had me come back."

* * *

His computer is filled with images from some of Tampa Bay's biggest federal trials.

The 1986 corruption case involving members of the Hillsborough County Commission? Cowie drew it.

The Aisenberg missing baby case? He sketched that, too.

When the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the St. Petersburg pastor and former National Baptist Convention USA leader, pleaded for a judge's mercy at his 1999 sentencing, Cowie was there.

He doesn't have a favorite, but if he had to pick one, he'd have to say retired Army Reserve Col. George Trofimoff. In 2001, Trofimoff became the highest-ranking U.S. military officer convicted of spying. It was the international attention the case drew that intrigued him.

"They're all interesting in one way or another," Cowie says.

Sometimes, they can be chilling.

He remembers when one defendant, a suspected serial killer, stared him in the eye.

"He looked right at me," he says. "That was the most strange feeling I ever had. He looked like if he got away, he'd want to hurt you. He was mean."

He doesn't make a lot of money from his work. The amount he charges depends on the length of the trial and the deal he cuts with networks. CNN will pay $150 for a day's work, he says. Some networks pay as much as $300.

During the Trofimoff case, which lasted several weeks, he billed networks more than $900.

He doesn't say how much money he's being paid for the Al-Arian trial, but he has negotiated deals with the networks and news services.

Work comes and goes. He's not in constant demand like he was when the late Bob Merkle was U.S. attorney from 1982 to 1988.

The miracle years, Cowie calls it. "He kept the artists busy," he says.

But he's not complaining. This year is shaping up to be a busy one. There was the trial of Tampa's former housing czar, Steve LaBrake, the Terri Schiavo saga and now, Al-Arian.

The latter is expected to last until December at least.

* * *

Cowie must be at the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse before 9 a.m.

It's "not . . . normal," says Cowie, a self-admitted sleep-until-10 kind of guy. "I guess I'll do it - at least for a while."

He doesn't dress up in his Sunday best like William Moffitt, Al-Arian's attorney, or Terry Furr, the lead prosecutor. His box-shaped afro is ruffled. His pepper-colored beard somewhat disheveled. A pair of eyeglasses dangle around his neck.

Cowie has his own seat, near the middle of U.S. District Judge James S. Moody's courtroom. During jury selection, he didn't have such a luxury. He watched the proceedings from a monitor in an overflow room. Not just any monitor.

It was a low-resolution monitor, "where the screen was divided into four, with the judge in one corner," Cowie says. "I was trying to draw a little image from a little image. That wasn't fun."

Being inside the courtroom, he says, allows him the opportunity to capture the raw emotion of the scene, the details that a camera cannot.

He loves those moments when Al-Arian turns to his attorney.

"I want to get something with some of the eyes, the mouth to see the expression," he says. "When you show the back, you don't get a sense of who that is."

He often thinks about Al-Arian's family.

"The name . . . it must be difficult to be Sami Al-Arian's son, daughter or wife," Cowie says.

He wonders if that look of confidence he captures in his sketches of Al-Arian is nothing more than a facade.

"He might be trying to put on a brave face," Cowie says, "to calm them."

-- Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or

[Last modified June 16, 2005, 12:51:04]

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