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Judge Tries to Rein in Courtroom Emotions
Maurice Possley, Tribune Staff Writer; Chicago Tribune; 06 June 1997
A day after his courtroom was torn by the gut-wrenching testimony of bombing victims and survivors, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, with characteristic sternness, moved to reassert control over the penalty hearing of convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Even before the jury filed in Thursday morning, Matsch reversed an earlier decision and barred prosecutors from calling a 9-year-old boy whose mother died in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Later, he ordered jurors to disregard an unsolicited outburst from the mother of another bombing victim who, upon completing her testimony, rose from the witness stand and declared, “God bless you, your honor. God bless America.”
A man long known for his rigid courtroom control, acerbic tongue and stern demeanor, Matsch, by his own admission, was overcome Wednesday by the gripping words and tears of the victims’ relatives who were called by prosecutors seeking to persuade the jury to sentence McVeigh to death.
Matsch himself has suffered such a loss. In 1992, his 24-year-old daughter, Betsy, slipped into a volcanic steam vent in Hawaii and died. He reportedly wore one of Betsy’s bracelets for the next year and a bench in the suburb where she grew up is engraved with “In Memory of Betsy Matsch and her childhood here.”
Although Thursday’s testimony was still sorrowful, the atmosphere was far less charged as prosecutors scaled back their questions about the events of the day of the bombing.
Clearly, a pallor of exhaustion from the events of the week hung over the room.
The tone for the day was set immediately with Matsch’s decision to bar the testimony of the 9-year-old, particularly because it included the youth’s observation of his mother in her casket.
“I don’t think he ought to testify,” Matsch declared. “I believe it would be inflammatory.”
Indeed, as he dismissed the jury Wednesday, Matsch had reminded them that although they had cried, as had he, ultimately their final decision would have to be based on facts, not emotion.
“We have to be careful and not let ourselves be overly stimulated by some of the testimony that we’ve heard here,” Matsch told the jury. “Those images that have been created by that testimony are not the things for you to consider. . . . We’re here to consider these lives and what’s happened to these people and also, as you will hear later, (McVeigh’s) life.”
The life and near-death of Royia Sims, who was at work in a building south of the Murrah building, was recounted Thursday by Melissa Webster, a paramedic who was working at a triage station set up after the bomb went off.
Webster recalled that when Sims was brought in, “her face was covered with blood, her mouth was filled with blood.” The woman was not breathing, Webster said.
She knelt down and put her hand on the woman’s neck. “It shocked me,” she said. “She had a pulse.”
Webster said she asked another, more senior paramedic for help, but was advised that if the woman was not breathing, to find a doctor to pronounce her dead and move to another patient. Triage, she explained to the jury, involves working quickly on those patients who are deemed to have the best chance of survival.
“I can’t do it,” Webster recalled thinking, even after getting the same advice from a second paramedic.
She said she hauled the woman to an ambulance and found a doctor to ventilate the woman’s throat so she could get oxygen.
The woman survived.
The most graphic testimony came from Dr. James Sullivan, who was summoned to the Murrah building after rescue workers found Daina Bradley trapped by rubble after the blast.
The only way to get Bradley from the building was to amputate her right leg, he said.
In a calm, straightforward manner, Sullivan relived the more than two hours he spent crammed into a narrow crevice performing the operation. He had four scalpels, all of which broke, and an amputation knife which dulled into uselessness because he kept hitting it against concrete rubble in the dimly lit space.
Twice, he said, rescue workers tried to pull Bradley out, but could not because he had been unable to sever the leg completely. In the end, Sullivan used his pocket knife to finish the job and Bradley was pulled to safety.
The most poignant testimony came from those who lost loved ones in the blast.
Army Sgt. Gregory Sohn, whose wife, Victoria, was killed, described how he has attempted to keep life going for their five children.
“You lose a friend. You lose a companion, your wife, your lover,” he said, his voice trembling.
Under questioning by prosecutor Aitan Goelman, Sohn said he always carries a coffee cup that is labeled “No. 1 Mommy” and contains their marriage certificate, his wife’s rings and her death certificate.
The prosecution is expected to complete its case Friday, and defense lawyers for McVeigh plan to begin their attempt to persuade the jury to sentence the gulf war veteran to life in prison without parole instead of to death.