Prosecutors Refuse to Try Cases in Front of Multnomah County Judge They Say Coddles Criminals

Lawyers request new judges often, but they rarely put as much effort into those motions as the district attorney’s office did.

Multnomah Justice Center (Joe Riedl)

The Multnomah County District Attorney's office has taken the extraordinary step of refusing to try cases in front of a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge who they say has a pattern of coddling defendants and letting convicted criminals off with improperly light sentences.

Deputy District Attorney Amber Kinney filed a motion on June 16 requesting another judge replace Judge Judith Matarazzo, who was assigned to oversee the trial of a man accused of sexually abusing his six-year-old son.

Judge Gregory F. Silver has been overseeing the trial since the motion was granted.

Lawyers request new judges often, but they rarely put as much effort into those motions as the district attorney's office did.

The affidavit supporting the motion came with a 34-page memo, authored by District Attorney Rod Underhill, laying out a laundry list of reasons why his office believes Matarazzo shouldn't be allowed to rule in "any criminal or civil matter to which the State of Oregon, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office or Rod Underhill is a named party."

Motions for a change of judge are not uncommon in criminal or civil cases, said Multnomah County Presiding Judge Nan G. Waller, who granted the motion on June 16.

But Waller said that she could not recall recently seeing another motion seeking to disqualify a judge that was accompanied with extensive list like the memorandum filed by the DA.

Matarazzo recently made headlines for sentencing a man with nine DUII convictions to just one year in prison—six fewer years than the state prosecutor recommended. Then she told The Oregonian that it was "inevitable" that the man would drink and drive again.

But the DA's memo says that's just a small piece of a pattern by Matarazzo. The memo accuses her of repeatedly hearing cases without the presence of state attorneys as far back as 2009; of violating Oregon statutes by foregoing parts of the DUII diversion program mandated by statute; and of handing down sentences that were grossly out of line with legal standards.

Neither Matarazzo nor the DA's office responded today to WW's requests for comment. "I certainly take an allegation that I can't be fair and impartial as pretty serious, and personally," Matarazzo told The Oregonian this afternoon.

KOIN-TV first reported the memo.

Matarazzo has served in the Multnomah County Circuit Court since August 2006, after then-Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed her to fill a vacancy on the bench.

The DA's memo lists 29 cases where it says Matarazzo treated defendants lightly.

The memo says that Matarazzo acquitted a man in April of all charges in a sex abuse case, after the state presented evidence that the defendant had kissed his underage daughter's neck and grabbed her buttock underneath her shorts.

According to the DA's memo, Matarazzo said she believed the girl but "did not find the defendant acted knowingly."

The memo also takes issue with multiple cases in which Matarazzo sentenced repeat DUII offenders to the minimum possible time and funneled them into the county's diversion program. In some cases, the defendant had already tried and failed to complete the diversion program.

The memo goes on to allege that she allowed a repeat DUII offender into the diversion program despite an earlier conviction for criminally negligent homicide for killing someone in a drunk-driving crash.

The state's memo says that Matarazzo found a defendant guilty of violating parole for felony assault and domestic violence charges, but sanctioned him only to outpatient assessment for treatment. The memo also says that the judge reduced bail to the minimum for a defendant who had fractured a victim's orbital socket and had prior firearm-related convictions, despite testimony that raised the possibility of witness intimidation and tampering.

The DA's scathing review could imperil Matarazzo's career. The DA's memo says that the office believes she is unfit to rule in any future cases it brings in Multnomah County.

The District Attorney's Office has the right to request a new judge in every case it brings to the court—so whenever Matarazzo is assigned to a criminal case, the DA could file the same affidavit asking for a different judge.

Underhill's has not yet commented on whether it will continue to file motions to remove Matarazzo in future cases.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.