U.S. District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch, who presided over the Oklahoma City bombing trials in his Denver courtroom, has died, the federal court announced Monday night.
Matsch, 88, was appointed to the federal bench for the District of Colorado by President Richard Nixon in 1974. During a 45-year career as a federal judge, Matsch handled several high-profile cases, including some cases involving the desegregation of Denver schools and the 1987 trial of three men and a woman in the killing of Denver talk show host Alan Berg.
But an international spotlight focused on Matsch’s courtroom for three years after a bomb exploded outside a federal building in Oklahoma City, on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds.
The senior judge died Monday, the court said.
“Judge Matsch will be remembered for the way that he handled the Oklahoma City bombing cases, reaffirming the public’s faith in our judicial system through his firmness, fairness and dignity during a particularly wrenching episode in our nation’s history,” said Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer, who presides over the U.S. District Court in Denver, in a news release. “He was everything a judge should be — a legal scholar, a leader of the court and a compassionate guardian of the rule of law. We have lost a judicial hero.”
In 1997, Matsch oversaw the separate bombing trials of Timothy McVeigh, who would be put to death, and Terry Nichols, who received a sentence of life in prison.
During Nichols’ sentencing, Matsch said his role in the bombing “was not a case of murder but a crime against the U.S. Constitution.”
At the time of the trials, fellow federal judge John Kane said in a Denver Post profile that Matsch tended to run court proceedings “like a general,” with a “stern visage” that also was mixed with a “rapier wit” and compassion for the people involved in cases.
Longtime friend Tom Seawell told The Post in 1996 that Matsch guarded his personal life because “he has a fundamental tendency not to be close to many people. … He’s a very private person. He makes time for his work and his family.”
For decades, Matsch lived on a 30-acre farm in rural Boulder County, with his wife, Elizabeth, who kept horses; together they’d had five children. Elizabeth Matsch died in October 2017.
Matsch was chief judge for the district court from 1994 to 2000. Since 2003, he had served as a senior judge, still overseeing some cases while semi-retired.
In a more recent case, Matsch ruled in 2015 that state and federal laws protected ammunition sellers from a lawsuit brought by the parents of Jessica Ghawi, a victim in the Aurora movie theater shooting.
Born in Burlington, Iowa, Richard Matsch earned a law degree from the University of Michigan and served in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955, including time in an Army counter-intelligence unit in Korea. Before his appointment as a federal judge, Matsch worked as a federal prosecutor, a deputy city attorney for the City and County of Denver and as a federal bankruptcy judge.