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Mcveigh’s Trial High-Tech Computer Glitches Make Judge Grumpy

The case is riddled with dense technical detail. The courtroom bristles with computers. The clerk manages a database of hundreds of exhibits that can instantly glow from oversized display screens.

Presiding over this high-tech world is a decidedly low-tech judge, who hasn’t hesitated to show his irritation when the system sometimes doesn’t work.

“We’re using some technology here that may require a little experimentation before we get the rhythm of it,” U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch warned jurors grumpily when a glitch temporarily prevented showing TV footage of the Oklahoma City bombing from a laserdisc.

A longtime observer of Matsch’s courtroom often finds Matsch, as well as other judges, skeptical of technological advances.

“This is the leap into hyperspace with computer monitors, touch consoles, laserdiscs, special desks with monitors built in, special databases,” said Larry Pozner, a Denver lawyer who has argued many cases before Matsch.

“The technology looks wonderful in the brochure, but it’s frighteningly complex in reality,” he said. “When it fails, the trial grinds to a halt and judges get very impatient.

“In the old system, you said ‘Let me show you Exhibit 9,’ and you handed it to him. And everybody had Exhibit 9. In the new system, you say, ‘I’m going to bring Exhibit 9 up on the monitor,’ and maybe you get Exhibit 9, and maybe you get your grocery list.”

Lawyers and witnesses use light-pens to circle or underline items of interest, sometimes employing symbols similar to the frantic scribbling of television sports commentators diagraming plays. Photographs are displayed by a special projector connected to the computer network.

Matsch, 66, protests ignorance of all this technology, often poking fun at himself and absorbing good-natured jibes from attorneys as light relief in the deadly serious trial of Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

“We’ve got somebody sufficiently skilled in the technology?” Matsch needled prosecutors last week, just before taped witness testimony.

“Your honor, I take this as a personal insult,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Ryan shot back.

Matsch appears truly uncomfortable with technical jargon. Last week, he took over questioning of a telecommunications expert because he was confused by the complex explanation of prepaid telephone cards. Central to the case is whether telephone records can accurately show points of origination for calls charged against such cards.

After the prosecution presentation, Matsch wearily called an early break.

“We’re going to take a recess, having blurred our vision with all these exhibits,” he said.

The judge has edged most gingerly into the use of computer jargon.

“I should recognize this was downloaded from a database,” he said as he brandished a document the first week of the trial.

“Congratulations,” lead prosecutor Joseph Hartzler said.

“But I didn’t do it,” Matsch replied with a grin.

Last week he used the word less successfully during questioning of McVeigh’s sister, Jennifer. The matter at hand was a computer file, allegedly written by her brother and directed to federal agents, that was retrieved from her home word processor.

“Who downloaded it?” Matsch asked, using the term for transmitting a file from one computer to another.

One courtroom observer suggests Matsch may be exaggerating his ignorance to build rapport with jurors.

“He’s starting to play to that reputation,” said Andrew Cohen, a Denver lawyer following the case. “It gets a laugh out of the jury. It gets a laugh out of the gallery. I suspect he knows more about it than he lets on.”

For the bombing case, Matsch moved from his customary quarters in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals building. Across the street, a newer courtroom was remodeled to include a computer network with monitors built into counsel tables. It’s a world away from now-common courtroom fixtures of overhead projectors and videotape recorders.

But Matsch paired the new electronics with an innovation symbolic of his distrust of technology: a curving wall that shields the jurors from a camera that feeds the required closed-circuit telecast of the trial to an audience of bombing survivors and victims’ families.

When media attorney Kelly Sager fought for the wall’s removal, arguing the news media had a right to see the jury, she suggested the camera could be hooded in such a way to block out jurors.

Matsch cut her off.

“Your clients,” the judge said, “have a greater faith in technology than I do.”