WASHINGTON — The prosecutor selected to serve as outside counsel for the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee at Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing has handled sex assault cases for decades.
Rachel Mitchell has been a prosecutor for more than 25 years in Arizona involved in crimes similar to the sexual assault allegation levied by Christine Blasey Ford against Kavanaugh, who has denied the claim.
Mitchell currently serves as the Deputy County Attorney in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix and is also is the division chief of the Special Victims Division, which handles cases of domestic violence, sex crimes, and auto theft. She has taken a leave of absence to come to Washington.
For over a decade, Mitchell, who was admitted to the Arizona state bar in 1992, ran the sex crimes bureau of that division, directing the prosecution of crimes including adult sexual assault.
On Thursday, however, she’ll be handling a case unlike any she’s ever prosecuted.
She’ll be in the pivotal role of representing the 11 Republican — and male — members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who selected Mitchell in part to avoid the appearance of an all-male GOP bloc scrutinizing Ford’s allegations. She’ll be tasked with questioning both Ford and Kavanaugh — Republicans are expected to yield their time to her, though each senator on the committee will have five minutes to ask one round of questions or yield their five minutes to counsel.
It’ll easily be the highest-profile case of Mitchell’s long and distinguished career handling sex crimes, an area she said she didn’t initially intend to focus on early in her career but one she felt drawn to after clerking at a law firm and watching a senior lawyer prosecute a youth choir director.
“It struck me how innocent and vulnerable the victims of these cases really were. When I became an attorney with the office, I prosecuted other kinds of cases, but I was drawn back to this area,” Mitchell said in a 2011 interview with FrontLine magazine, a religious publication.
In the early 2000s, when the Catholic Church was first rocked by sex abuse scandals, Mitchell led the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office sex crime unit as it prosecuted Rev. Paul LeBrun, the first priest in the Phoenix area who went to trial for child abuse. LeBrun was found guilty in 2005 of sexually abusing young boys and sentenced to 111 years in prison, according to the Arizona Republic.
At the time, Mitchell called the sentencing for LeBrun “vindication for these victims and they need that.”
“It also tells people who have been victimized by people in authority that someone is listening and will do something about it,” she said, Reuters reported at the time.
Arizona criminal defense attorney Tracey Westerhausen, who is also a close friend of Mitchell’s, told CNN that Mitchell’s reputation in the courtroom is that she’s “extremely prepared” and “extremely methodical.”
“She does not engage in courtroom histrionics. You’ll never have a gotcha moment where there’s a big surprise. She will build her case very carefully and in layers,” Westerhausen told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day” Thursday morning.
Her work has earned her numerous awards in her state, including in 2003 when she was recognized as the “Outstanding Arizona Sexual Assault Prosecutor of the Year” by her state’s governor and attorney general.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office said Mitchell has been “instrumental” in developing protocols for investigating child abuse and sexual assault cases “enhancing the ability for victims to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect while holding offenders accountable.” Mitchell also travels the country lecturing and training others on sexual assault cases.
“The American people can be confident that Rachel Mitchell’s experience as a conscientious prosecutor, trained to seek justice, protect victims, and pursue truth will assist the Senate Judiciary Committee in performing its important task,” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said.
Mitchell is a registered Republican and has donated to the campaign of Arizona’s GOP Attorney General Mark Brnovich, according to The Washington Post.
But Westerhausen, a Democrat, said Mitchell’s political affiliation would have no influence on Thursday’s hearing.
“Political parties, anything like that, makes no difference to Rachel,” Westerhausen told CNN’s “New Day.”
Maricopa County is the same county of Joe Arpaio, the former controversial sheriff who, the Justice Department alleged in 2011, failed to prosecute hundreds of sex crimes during his time in office. Her former supervisor Cindi Nannetti told The Washington Post that it fell to Mitchell and other prosecutors in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to find out why so many sex crimes were left unresolved or inadequately investigated by Arpaio’s office.
Nannetti told the newspaper Mitchell determined which cases could still be prosecuted and later conducted training for the sheriff’s office to avoid it happening again.