Matsch handled McVeigh, Nichols trials

Originally Published: August 12, 2004
Associated Press

DENVER -- A no-nonsense federal judge who presided over the Oklahoma City bombing trials now has another high-profile case in his courtroom: the civil suit filed against NBA star Kobe Bryant by the woman accusing him of sexual assault.

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch is best known for handling the trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the 1995 Oklahoma City case. But in 30 years on the bench, he also presided over a protracted school busing case, the trials of anti-Semitic militants convicted of assassinating a talk show host and the sentencing of a forestry worker who admitted starting Colorado's worst wildfire.

Matsch keeps tight control of his courtroom, never hesitating to clamp down on attorneys. Given to wearing cowboy boots and hats, he sometimes raises his voice to dress down an attorney for asking witnesses repetitive questions or for coming to court unprepared.

The random-assignment system used in Denver federal court handed the Bryant civil suit to Matsch.

"If there's any judge that's able to keep it from becoming a circus, it's Judge Matsch, just like he was able to keep the Oklahoma City bombing case from becoming a circus," said attorney Dan Recht, who has had numerous cases before Matsch.

"He's a very smart judge that maintains complete control of his courtroom, and that is well-respected generally by all sides to all litigation," he said.

Attorneys for Bryant's 20-year-old accuser filed the civil case in Denver federal court Tuesday after questioning whether the criminal case would get a fair hearing in Eagle County District Court.

The attorneys said gaffes in the criminal case allowed the release of information favorable to Bryant and eroded the woman's faith in the criminal justice system.

Prosecutors have asked for an indefinite delay in the criminal trial, scheduled to start Aug. 27, and appealed a key ruling to the state Supreme Court, prompting legal experts to speculate that the case will be dropped. Prosecutors say they still plan to go to trial.

Bryant, 25, has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault. He has said he had consensual sex with the woman. If convicted, the Los Angeles Lakers star faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000.

Matsch, 74, took senior-judge status in summer 2003, allowing him to reduce his caseload.

Since then, his cases have included a complicated dispute over the Denver Broncos between owner Pat Bowlen and former owner Edgar Kaiser Jr.

In March 2003, he presided over the sentencing of the woman who pleaded guilty to starting a 2002 wildfire that burned 138,000 acres and 132 homes southwest of Denver. About 80 people, many of whom lost property in the blaze, packed the courtroom.

Matsch was appointed to the bench by President Nixon in 1974 and soon was called on to create a school-busing system for Denver in a desegregation case. He lifted the system in 1995 after ruling that it succeeded "to the extent practicable."

Matsch presided over the trial of several members of the Order who were convicted of the 1984 assassination of Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg.

In other prominent rulings, Matsch ordered a nativity scene removed from the holiday display at Denver's City and County Building and ruled the Ku Klux Klan had a right to march in Denver on Martin Luther King Day despite the risk of violent confrontation.

The Oklahoma City bombing trials -- which led to McVeigh's execution and a life sentence for Nichols-- brought Matsch national recognition.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press