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Remembering a Unique Judge Who Changed the Way We Look at Justice

Richard Matsch, who presided over the the Oklahoma City bombing trials, was an example of the best of the bench.

June 10, 2019

The nation took too little note of the death of Judge Richard Matsch last month. An earnest, honest, gruff, tough 1974 nominee of President Richard Nixon, he spent the last 45 years of his life as a tribune of the law and a federal trial judge in Colorado. From 1995 to 1998 he presided over the two biggest criminal trials in the history of America, the Oklahoma City bombing trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and if history remembers nothing else about his remarkable tenure on the bench it ought to remember how he handled those extraordinary cases.


A generation has passed since that domestic terror attack and federal prosecution. You really had to see those cases to believe them. The bombing and the federal investigation and trials came right after the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson in California, which under the direction of Judge Lance Ito had left millions of Americans unsettled about the nation’s justice system. Into this chaos and disillusion came onto the stage this scrawny, mustachioed judge, straight out of central casting for a Western figure of solemn diligence, to bring order to the chaos and hope to the disillusioned. Matsch was, as I called him all those years ago covering the trials, the “anti-Ito.”  


Michael Tigar, the fabled defense attorney, remembers. He represented conspirator Nichols in the case and had some epic run-ins with Matsch in and out of the courtroom. Two lions in winter roaring at one another. Tigar told me by phone Saturday: “In trials where witness emotions run high, and the prosecutors display unaccustomed zeal, one hopes for a presiding judge whose demeanor and rulings can steer jurors away from acting out the anger and vengeance that witnesses and prosecutors are expressing. Judge Matsch fulfilled that hope.”


On April 19, 1995, McVeigh drove a rental truck he had filled with explosives to the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, lit a fuse connected to explosives behind him, and then walked away. At 9:02 a.m., with the workday just started and the first-floor daycare center filled with children, the truck bomb went off. One hundred sixty-eight people were killed. Nineteen children, some of them infants, perished. Hundreds of others were wounded in what was, before 9/11, the largest act of terrorism ever committed on American soil.


The bomb McVeigh had packed was so powerful that the blast damaged the nearby federal courthouse, raising questions about whether the two defendants could receive a fair trial in a city that had been so badly damaged. Of course they couldn’t. But it took great courage from two judges to ensure that McVeigh and Nichols would be tried away from the scene of their momentous crime. One was Judge Stephanie Seymour, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, who disqualified all of Oklahoma’s federal trial judges from the case.


The other was Matsch. Once Seymour assigned the case to him he quickly realized that no judge could preside over a fair trial of those two defendants in that city. He moved the case to Denver, to his own courtroom, and that change of venue began to alter the way we now perceive the sense of justice and fairness those cases now represent. It took courage and integrity to tell the people of Oklahoma City, thirsting for justice, what they needed to be told: that they were too biased, too angry, too hurt to sit in judgment.  


Matsch was assigned to the case by Seymour because of his no-nonsense reputation and because he had aptly handled an earlier high-profile case of right-wing violence in Colorado, the shooting of radio talk show host Alan Berg by white supremacists. But the trials of McVeigh and Nichols still were situated in Oklahoma City when Matsch first was appointed. Not for long. Matsch was “deeply offended by the selling of bombing memorabilia in the courthouse in Oklahoma City and he was deeply offended by the picture they permitted the press to do of Terry coming in the [entrance] with the vest and everything on,” Tigar recalled.


And so Matsch moved the trial to Denver — to screams of anger by Oklahomans — and then ran the show with almost military-like precision. “We thought that was good for us. Because when the jurors were in the building they should be working,” Tigar said. “It is not good for any party, but especially the defense, if proceedings get drawn out, if juror time is being wasted, if things are not being done efficiently, because by the time the defense gets to put on its case the jurors are getting tired of things and they’d like this to be over so they can go home. The defense bears that burden.” Matsch was preternaturally on time and disciplined.

The bombing trials were the first federal criminal trials ever broadcast live via video. To quell the furor caused by the venue change, Congress passed a law allowing the victims of the bombing to watch the proceedings from Oklahoma City. Matsch wasn’t happy about this legislative intrusion into core judicial functions, so he allowed only one camera into his courtroom, at the very back, and coordinated a closed-circuit feed back to Oklahoma. In the wake of the Simpson trial circus “he was not going to let this become a media show,” Tigar said. “I know you guys didn’t think that was maybe such a great idea but we sure did.”


In the end, after an epic trial, McVeigh was sentenced to death. The jury refused to unanimously recommend a death sentence for a Nichols, feeling that he truly was a junior partner to McVeigh. Still, Matsch called Nichols “an enemy of the Constitution” and sentenced him to life without the possibility of early release. Many people were outraged that Nichols’ life was spared (he subsequently was tried and convicted in state court in Oklahoma but didn’t get the death penalty in that case, either). Tigar, of course sees it differently. To him, Matsch’s sentence was unduly harsh given the evidence against Nichols.


“That was the one departure, the one unwillingness to deconstruct the government’s contentions and do something about it,” Tigar says of Matsch’s tone and rationale for the sentence. That’s overly generous, I think. Judge Matsch made many rulings greatly favorable to prosecutors, as well.


And in the end he did nothing to stop McVeigh from expediting his own execution just four years after his conviction. No one remembers now that shortly before McVeigh was scheduled to die in May 2001, the FBI and Justice Department disclosed that agents had belatedly found thousands of pages of “discovery material” that should have been given to attorneys for both McVeigh and Nichols prior to their trials. The error was so significant that the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a withering report on it.


Tigar said, “When McVeigh at the end, towards the end of his life, spoke out about his defense and then when it became clear on top of that that the FBI had withheld boxes and boxes of information that the defense ought to have had, at that point I fault Matsch for not saying: ‘Okay, stop. Let’s everybody come back here and let’s take a look at this again.’”


We will never know if Matsch had any regrets about the decisions he made in the last days of McVeigh’s life. He certainly wasn’t the type to share them with any reporters if he did.


I appeared in court briefly before Matsch when I was a baby lawyer and I remember being terrified of him, as most young attorneys were. During the bombing trials I considered him an immovable object, a man of such stern constitution that he could sit through hours of the most wrenching victim testimony and not come to tears like everyone else inside the courtroom. In later years, as I covered more of his important cases, including the way he stood up for brutalized federal prisoners and unjustly-treated sex offenders, I considered him a genuine American hero.


The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Brandi Stafford/AP-Tulsa World)