Judge Keeps McVeigh Trial Under His Tight Rein


Before taking charge of perhaps the most important trial in America, US District Court Judge Richard Matsch rode a bus into Denver each morning so he could do paperwork on his way to the courthouse.

At bar association conventions, it is Judge Matsch's habit to eat alone, to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Matsch, say friends and colleagues, is an admirer of the frontier men and women who tamed the old West through gritty determination and unbowed discipline.

For those fortunate enough to get a seat in Courtroom 204 to witness the proceedings, the Oklahoma City bombing trial is a testament to the spare efficiency and strict order that the mustachioed man in black robes so deeply prizes.

In stark contrast to the circus atmosphere and legal lethargy that plagued the O.J. Simpson trial, Matsch has kept this complex case from getting bogged down. When the trial opened here on March 31, legal analysts predicted that it might run four months. Since then, that estimate has been halved.

"When you try a case in Judge Matsch's courtroom, it's like you're in Sunday School - you're on your best behavior," says Michael Katz, Colorado's federal public defender since 1979. "He won't let it become a free-for-all. He loves trials and believes 100 percent in the [judicial] system," says Katz. "And that's refreshing, because it makes you feel like you're doing God's work, no matter which side you're on."

In the bombing case, he has set a standard of unprecedented secrecy: Defense and prosecution attorneys have been barred from making out-of-court statements for the duration of the trial. Matsch has sealed about three-quarters of court documents filed - including witness lists - and has kept secret the identities of jurors, who are obscured behind a beige screen in the windowless courtroom.

So far, this practical, no-nonsense attitude has helped foster the trial's speediness. The prosecution already has placed dozens upon dozens of witnesses on the stand - and presented dramatic testimony from Jennifer McVeigh, the defendant's sister, and Lori Fortier, a longtime acquaintance. Last Wednesday alone, prosecutors zipped through 27 witnesses before lunchtime. In contrast, during O.J. Simpson's criminal trial - which spanned nine months - witnesses were apt to remain on the stand for days.

Matsch starts precisely on time and ends on time; lawyers are expected to get directly to the point - or risk the judge's sharply delivered ire; objections are ruled on quickly and decisively, with no opening for debate.

Creative solutions

Last week, when defense lawyer Cheryl Ramsey objected repeatedly to a series of government evidence in the form of telephone records, Matsch - who kept overruling the objections - had a creative solution to the time-consuming dialogue. "Why don't we register a continuing objection, with the same ruling, for admission of any evidence of this nature?" he suggested. Ms. Ramsey agreed.

"He is brisk, he is businesslike, he is punctual, he is impatient," summarizes Mimi Wesson, a University of Colorado law professor and former US attorney.

With a mere glance, Matsch can send shivers through an ill-prepared litigator. "I haven't tried a case before him where I wasn't terrified," she says. "I knew I better have every one of my ducks in a straight row, because that's what he expects."

But while many fear Matsch, most lawyers profess as much admiration for him. "He is one of the best and most neutral judges I've ever met," says Colorado public defender Katz, who has tried nearly 20 cases before Matsch. "Even though he may be testy or irritable, it's an uplifting experience to be in his courtroom. He's such a pro; he has such good instincts as a judge for knowing when something is out of bounds. It all adds to the order of the court and the respect given to the case."

Even Mr. McVeigh, the Gulf war veteran accused of planning and staging the April 19, 1995, bombing that claimed 168 lives, speaks highly of the judge presiding over his death-penalty trial. "I'm impressed with the man. I like him. My view is that he is objective," he told Time magazine last year.

A native of Iowa, Matsch grew up on a diet of discipline. Every day after school he was expected to work in his father's grocery store in addition to finishing his homework. Instead of rebelling, he thrived. Matsch went on to attend the University of Michigan Law School and was appointed to the federal bench by President Richard Nixon in 1974.

Colleagues describe Matsch as so intense that he chooses to work at a stand-up desk when preparing for cases. But despite his daunting character, the man also has a legendary wry wit. After a stretch of particularly dull witness questioning last week, Matsch unexpectedly turned to yawning jurors and deadpanned, "I'm sure your adrenaline levels are running high after this exciting testimony."

Restoring lost faith

These days, pundits have taken to calling Matsch the "anti-Ito" - the antithesis of Judge Lance Ito, who some believe permitted a media circus atmosphere to prevail during the Simpson trial. Legal experts even suggest Matsch holds the power to restore Americans' lost faith in the judiciary.

"I think the O.J. Simpson criminal trial really showed our legal system at its worst," says Cathlin Donnell, a Denver legal consultant and former US prosecutor. "And I think the O.J. trial hangs over the McVeigh trial in a profound way. I'm sure that Matsch feels that; I'm sure that everyone is looking at this case through that lens."

A swift and orderly trial can't in itself satisfy the public's cry for justice - for many, only a guilty verdict can accomplish that. Still, the brisk pace so far delivers its own measure of reassurance, says Denver cabdriver Connie Schultz. "The families of victims have suffered long enough already. I'm so glad this isn't going to drag on like the O.J. Simpson trial."


* Federal judge since 1974.

* He and his wife, Elizabeth (Lib) Matsch, were married in 1958.

* Five children (one deceased).

* Presided over trial in which two members of The Order, an anti-Semitic group, were convicted of the murder of Alan Berg, a Jewish talk-radio host.

* For nearly two decades, held that the Denver Public School District must maintain a mandatory busing plan, despite community leaders including Mayor Wellington Webb calling for its repeal. He released the district from the busing plan last year in a 66-page decision.

* Has been driven to work by federal marshals since early last year. Before that, he took the bus to work.

* Prohibits members of the courtroom from wearing any jewelry commemorating the Oklahoma City bombing disaster.

* Owns a 30-acre farm north of Denver, and although he is described as a "gentleman farmer" and often wears a cowboy hat and boots outside the courtroom, he has never ranched.

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