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As Kavanaugh Accuser Testifies, It’s a Veteran Sex Crimes Prosecutor Doing the Questioning

As Christine Blasey Ford testified Thursday in the Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she was guided through her initial questioning, on behalf of Republican members, by a veteran Arizona sex crimes prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell.

“I can think of no one better equipped to question the witnesses than Rachel Mitchell,” the committee’s chairman, Charles E. Grassley, said in recounting Ms. Mitchell’s professional accomplishments. “With her aid, I look forward to a fair and productive hearing.”

Ms. Mitchell began her part of the hearing with an apology: “I just wanted to tell you, the first thing that struck me from your statement this morning was that you’re terrified,” she told the witness. “And I just wanted to let you know, I’m very sorry. That’s not right.”

Then she proceeded to probe Dr. Blasey’s testimony.

Here’s our look at Ms. Mitchell’s record in Arizona:

Heather Grossman, a quadriplegic woman in Arizona paralyzed from the neck down, was at her wits’ end.

The police had recommended felony abuse charges against her ex-husband, an heir to a truck-leasing fortune whom she had accused of spitting in her face, beating her and throwing bags of dog feces at her. But the prosecutor running the sex crimes and family violence unit in Phoenix, Rachel Mitchell, declined to press charges after questioning the woman’s credibility.

“My former husband had the wealth on his side to hire legal firepower, but the prosecution should have been more thorough,” Ms. Grossman, now 52 and living with her mother, said of her struggle for justice more than 15 years ago. “I’m sure Rachel Mitchell has a load of experience, but that didn’t do me any good. The system failed me at the time.”

Ms. Mitchell, a veteran prosecutor in Arizona’s Maricopa County attorney’s office, has a long record as an evenhanded prosecutor of sex and domestic abuse cases, though some Arizonans, like Ms. Grossman, have expressed disappointment that she is not always as aggressive against abuse suspects as they would like.

On Thursday, she takes on her highest-profile case yet: As the Senate Judiciary Committee hears testimony from Christine Blasey Ford, the first woman to accuse the Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault, it is Ms. Mitchell set to lead the questioning for the Republican membership.

A registered Republican, Ms. Mitchell has worked more than a quarter-century in a county attorney’s office long dominated by Republicans. She has a reputation for political impartiality, though, which has prompted some colleagues to wonder why she accepted an assignment that places her squarely in the middle of one of the nation’s most polarizing political debates — tasked with examining the credibility of one of three women to publicly accuse Judge Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

“I would have counseled her against taking this on,” said Rick Romley, another Republican who was Ms. Mitchell’s boss for more than a decade as the former county attorney for Maricopa County. “I don’t think she understands what she’s going to be up against.”

Supporters of Ms. Mitchell said she has pushed to strengthen sexual assault laws in Arizona and expand assistance to victims, especially children, who have suffered sexual abuse. Ms. Mitchell discussed her job in a 2012 interview with FrontLine Magazine, the journal of Foundations Baptist Fellowship International, a fundamentalist group that cautioned in a blog post this week that some women fabricate allegations of sexual assault.

[Struggling to keep up with the Kavanaugh news? Catch up with our guide.]

In the interview, Ms. Mitchell said she first became familiar with issues around child sex crimes when she was paired with a senior attorney who was working a case involving a youth choir director accused of misconduct.

“It was different than anything that I would have ever imagined it being,” she said. “It intrigued me, and I continued to do other work with that bureau chief. It struck me how innocent and vulnerable the victims of these cases really were.”

Ms. Mitchell gained prominence during the sexual abuse scandal that engulfed the Phoenix Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church more than a decade ago and continues to simmer. In 2005, she won a conviction on child molestation charges of Paul LeBrun, a former Catholic priest who was sentenced to 111 years in prison.

“I found Mitchell to be very empathetic with sex abuse victims,” said Joseph Reaves, a former reporter for The Arizona Republic who co-wrote a book about the Phoenix Diocese scandal. “I did those cases for two or three years, and it was enough of a dark time for me,” he said. “I don’t know how she’s managed to do this type of work for 26 years, but it speaks to her level of dedication.”

Ms. Mitchell’s long tenure in the sex crimes unit in one of the country’s most populous counties has not been without controversy. The Maricopa County attorney’s office was a target of a lawsuit filed this month over child pornography charges that were mistakenly brought against an innocent man in 2017.

Ms. Mitchell had previously come under scrutiny in 2011 after a former elder in a Jehovah’s Witness church in Phoenix admitted to sexually abusing a boy in the 1980s but was sentenced to only six months in jail. The defendant had been allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges that did not include crimes that occurred during the victim’s pre-teenage years.

Ms. Grossman, the quadriplegic whose ex-husband was never prosecuted, published a scathing memoir about her abuse.

Judge Kavanaugh has strongly denied that the episode Dr. Blasey has described, as well as those outlined by two other accusers, ever took place. Some legal analysts and colleagues of Ms. Mitchell have questioned the use of a prosecutor to question an accuser in a case that has not been subject to a fact-finding law enforcement investigation.

“Rachel is a respected prosecutor who is very good at what she does,” Mr. Romley, Ms. Mitchell’s former boss, said. “But they should have had the F.B.I. look into this.”

Dr. Blasey had initially made it clear she wanted the F.B.I. to interview potential witnesses before she presented her testimony. But Republican senators, many of whom see the sex abuse allegations as a politically motivated attempt to block Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation, insisted the hearings proceed without further delay.

“The structure of the questioning that Rachel Mitchell was hired to do is very biased and unfair,” said Janet Warren, a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia.

“She’s a trained prosecutor using her skills to cross-examine people,” said Dr. Warren, who is the University of Virginia’s liaison to the F.B.I.’s behavioral sciences unit. To be evenhanded, the committee could have brought in a sex crimes victims’ advocate for Dr. Blasey “that could level things out,” Dr. Warren said. “But that’s not what is happening.”

Still, Monica Gellman, a former deputy county attorney for Maricopa County who worked under Ms. Mitchell, said that she expected her former boss to be as thorough as possible given the limited time frame in which she has to work. She said that Ms. Mitchell has handled other cases in which accusers, like Dr. Blasey, have recalled events that allegedly occurred decades in the past.

“Rachel is someone who is very familiar with cases of delayed disclosure,” Ms. Gellman said.

A registered Democrat, Ms. Gellman said she had never seen Ms. Mitchell’s Republican politics affect her handling of cases. “I didn’t feel like she let politics influence her work,” she said. “She was a prosecutor who knew how to treat everyone with respect.”

Similarly, Bill Richardson, a retired police detective in Arizona with extensive experience investigating sex crimes, said he expected Ms. Mitchell to approach her assignment with professionalism.

“But what if Rachel decides that she needs to talk to more people?” Mr. Richardson asked. “These cases can be much more complex than they seem on the surface. Is the committee going to allow her to do her job? The expectations on something like this are overwhelming.”

Matt Stevens contributed reporting and Susan Beachy contributed research.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: Veteran Sex Crimes Prosecutor Faces National Glare in Committee Hearing. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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