Bomb trial judge is the 'anti-Ito' Order: A no-nonsense judge is presiding at the first Oklahoma City bombing trial. One lawyer calls him the "anti-Ito," meaning his style is the antithesis to that of Judge Lance A. Ito in the O. J. Simpson murder trial.

Sun Journal

April 01, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DENVER -- In U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch's courtroom, proceedings start exactly on time. Windy lawyers are ordered to stop speechifying. Coats are not slung over chairs. There are no commercial television cameras.

In Matsch's courtroom, where Timothy J. McVeigh is on trial charged with bombing the Oklahoma City federal building, attorneys are expected to be as well-prepared as the judge, to make their points and to sit down.

"He's the anti-Ito," says Andrew Cohen, a Denver lawyer and legal analyst.

Where Judge Lance A. Ito let O. J. Simpson's criminal trial meander along for the better part of a year, leaving lawyers plenty of time to posture for the cameras, Matsch, 66, runs a no-nonsense courtroom in which the judge always has control.

"It's I'm-in-charge-and-that's-what-I-said-and-I-mean-it," says Martin Cash, a Department of Veterans Affairs counselor who was injured in the Oklahoma City bombing and has watched Matsch preside over pretrial hearings.

Cash and other bombing victims have sometimes objected to Matsch's decisions. Yet, he grants, "I've always felt that he's been as fair as he could be."

The McVeigh trial is complicated by pressures outside the courtroom: the emotions of the bomb victims and their surviving relatives -- about 2,000 people; the demands of 1,700 credentialed reporters and photographers; the need for strict security in a trial expected to last at least four months.

But Denver lawyers say Matsch, a short man who sometimes arrives at the courthouse in cowboy hat and boots, cares about nothing on the bench except a fair trial.

Not playing to media

"You don't get the sense that you got with Ito -- that Matsch is worried about how he's coming off in the media, how he's being portrayed," Cohen says.

James K. Bredar, federal public defender for Maryland, served as Matsch's law clerk in 1983, then practiced before him from 1985 to 1991.

"He is a wonderful, warm, sensitive human being," Bredar says. "But this is not a touchy-feely guy. Judge Matsch is about duty and the law and the Constitution. If he is assigned a case, he is going to march out there and do it."

Longtime friends say Matsch learned about responsibility and hard work back in Burlington, Iowa, where he was raised in a family with a modest income.

His parents, of German descent, ran a grocery store and were intent on seeing their three sons go to college. The Matsch boys, who helped out at the grocery, were expected to sit down and do their homework as soon as they came home from school.

At Burlington High, where youngsters came from merchant, railroading and farm families, Matsch ranked near the top of the class of 1947.

He was editor of the school paper, a clever writer with a sense of humor. A high school friend remembers Matsch and his pals as typical teen-agers, hanging out and pulling off pranks such as pushing over outhouses at Halloween.

After graduation from the University of Michigan and the Michigan law school, Matsch served in the Army. In 1955, he moved to Denver, but he remains a devoted fan of the Michigan's Wolverines.

Nixon appointee

President Richard M. Nixon appointed him to the federal bench in 1974. He had served as a federal prosecutor and as deputy city attorney for the city and county of Denver before he was named a bankruptcy judge in 1965.

High-profile cases are not new to Matsch. In 1987, he presided at the trial of white supremacists accused of killing a Jewish talk-show host. For years, he oversaw the federal court's supervision of Denver's school integration plan.

Matsch and his wife, Elizabeth, live outside of Denver. Her interests include horses; his include military history, Western art and the cultivation of prairie grasses. The Matsches raised five children.

In 1992, their daughter Elizabeth died when she fell into a volcanic steam vent while studying in Hawaii. For months after, the judge is said to have worn one of her bracelets.

A private couple, the Matsches attend few social events. Their photos do not appear on Denver's society pages.

Charles Szekely, chief of the trial division in the Denver federal public defender's office, said Matsch is so private that it was a surprise to see the judge stand still for a brief photo and interview session on the day he was named to the McVeigh trial in December 1995.

"That was unheard of," Szekely said. "He's almost a throwback to a more old-fashioned, austere style."

Lawyers who practice in Matsch's courtroom say his style is almost military. He will not allow any jewelry that bears a political or religious message, so visitors must remove crosses, flag lapel pins or holy medals.

Survivors of the bombing will not be allowed to wear ribbons or small photos of victims in the courtroom. The rules also will be rigidly enforced even in the Oklahoma City auditorium where victims and their relatives can watch a closed-circuit television broadcast of the trial.

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