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Bombing Judge Handles Motions With Wit, Calm

October 7, 1996

DENVER (AP) _ First came the separate trials issue pushed by Oklahoma City bombing suspects Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Next, squabbles over prison food, evidence and the media.

With a dash of dry wit and the calmness of a kindergarten teacher, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch considered them all last week, moving the Oklahoma City bombing case one step closer to a trial date _ or dates.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike respect Matsch for his meticulous research and basing his rulings on facts, not emotion.

They expect no less of him on the most critical issue argued last week: Whether McVeigh and Nichols should be tried separately. Matsch took the matter under advisement, and is expected to set a trial date after he rules.

``Judge Matsch has been cautious,″ said Irven Box, an Oklahoma City attorney and TV trial analyst who attended the pretrial hearing. ``Each side has been given every opportunity.″

McVeigh and Nichols are charged with murder and conspiracy in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168 people and injured more than 500. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

Prosecutors say most evidence will be admitted against both men and a joint trial would be more efficient and less traumatic for witnesses, bombing survivors and family members.

McVeigh and Nichols say it would be unfair to ask the same jury to listen to evidence admitted against each man and yet judge them individually.

One of the most critical issues centers on statements Nichols made two days after the bombing.

Nichols told FBI agents he and McVeigh were near the Murrah building three days before the bombing; and, on the day before the bombing, he lent McVeigh his pickup truck and cleaned out a storage locker at McVeigh’s request on the day after.

Matsch has said the statements can be used against Nichols, but not McVeigh. That presents a constitutional question since McVeigh would not be allowed to cross-examine Nichols during a joint trial.

Matsch could order one trial and instruct the jurors to keep the evidence separate; order separate trials or seat two juries during a joint trial _ one for each defendant.

Box predicted Matsch will separate the trials. ``The whole question is not being able to cross-examine your accuser,″ he said. ``To me, this is the hardest decision he’s had to make.″

Matsch also let the attorneys resolve a dispute involving Nichols’ protest that prison officials were denying him high-fiber foods he needs for a medical condition following bowel surgery.

Matsch also refused to let McVeigh grant selected news media interviews.

In his handling of spectators, Matsch has controlled two courtrooms that are as different as night and day.

In the primary room, only those with proper credentials or badges are admitted. Spectators sit thigh-to-thigh on 10 hard, wooden pews _ 11 per bench _ with coats, purses and briefcases littering the floor. No one can leave or enter until Matsch orders a recess.

``We’re all packed in where we can’t really move,″ Box said. ``The air’s really bad.″

In a room next door, two dozen people sit comfortably and listen to an audio feed booming from the courtroom. Most take notes; some read newspapers, stare into space or snooze. But they may come and go as they please.

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