On Oct. 25, 2005, the Rev. Paul LeBrun appeared in court in Maricopa County, Arizona. The former Catholic priest had been accused of molesting six boys between the ages of 11 and 13 during the late 1980s and early 1990s, after he was transferred to Arizona from a parish in Indiana. But he insisted that he was innocent.
Calling his client the victim of a “witch hunt,” LeBrun’s attorney, Kenneth Huls, did his best to discredit the accusations, the Arizona Republic reported. First, he pointed out that the allegations were more than a decade old. He also noted that three of the victims had felony convictions, while two others were seeking millions from civil lawsuits. The case, he said, was all about false accusations and greed.
For prosecutors, the stakes were high. Two years earlier, an investigation by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office had found enough evidence to bring criminal charges against six priests in the Phoenix diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. But most had opted to take plea deals, allowing them to avoid the public spectacle of a potentially messy trial. Two had fled the country. And former Bishop Thomas O’Brien had received immunity from prosecution by admitting that the Phoenix Diocese had known that multiple priests within the diocese had been accused of sexually abusing children, and had quietly transferred them to other parts of the country and the state.
LeBrun was the first priest to go before a jury and fight the charges, the Arizona Republic reported.
The prosecutor assigned to the case was a woman named Rachel Mitchell. In January 2005, 10 months before the trial, she had been chosen to replace her former boss, Cindi Nannetti, as the head of the sex-crimes unit at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. The shake-up had stunned observers, who questioned why newly elected county attorney Andrew Thomas had chosen to demote Nannetti, a well-liked veteran prosecutor with a reputation for being a strong advocate for victims of sex crimes, just a week after he took office.
The trial offered Mitchell an opportunity to prove that she deserved the top job, as well as a chance to finally get a jury to send an abusive priest to prison. She fought to persuade the judge to hear the testimony of two men from Indiana, who said that LeBrun had molested them while he was a priest there. The statute of limitations meant that LeBrun couldn’t be criminally charged in Indiana, but Mitchell argued that the men’s stories would prove that LeBrun had shown a continued propensity to abuse young boys.
The judge ruled in her favor, and the men were allowed to testify. Two weeks later, the jury returned its verdict: LeBrun was guilty on three counts of sexual conduct with a minor and three counts of child molestation. In what amounted to a major victory for Mitchell, he was sentenced to 111 years in prison.
For decades, the sex abuse scandal remained Mitchell’s most high-profile case. Then, on Tuesday night, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) announced that Mitchell had been chosen to question both Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. Ford has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, which he strongly denies. Mitchell will question both of them separately on Thursday, in front of a live televised audience.
“It struck me how innocent and vulnerable the victims of these cases really were,” she told FrontLine Magazine, which is affiliated with Foundations Baptist Fellowship International, a conservative Christian group.
Mitchell is a registered Republican and has donated to the campaign of Mark Brnovich, Arizona’s Republican attorney general. But Cindi Nannetti, her predecessor and former supervisor, said that she’s never known Mitchell to be influenced by politics.
“Rachel will do her job as a professional,” Nannetti said. “And she will do it with the utmost respect to the committee. She does not play politics when it comes to anything involving her work.”
Under the leadership of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office failed to thoroughly investigate hundreds of sex crimes that were reported between 2005 and 2007. After those files were turned over to the county attorney’s office, Mitchell was one of the prosecutors who sorted through them to figure out which cases were still viable, Nannetti said. She later conducted training sessions for the sheriff’s office, in hopes of avoiding a repeat.
Mitchell has yet to speak publicly or respond to requests for comment about her unusual role in Kavanaugh’s confirmation process. But acquaintances describe her as empathetic, professional and fair.
“Part of the reason we’re very good friends, she is a very nuanced and wise prosecutor,” Tracey Westerhausen, a Phoenix defense attorney who has gone up against Mitchell in court, told the Washington Post on Tuesday evening. “She doesn’t pigeonhole defendants. In my experience, she is a very pointed questioner of adverse witnesses. But she is also very fair.”
Joseph Reaves, a former Arizona Republic reporter who recently co-published a book about the sex abuse scandal in the Phoenix diocese, recalled that many of the victims who came forward were outraged to learn that Bishop O’Brien would avoid facing any serious consequences for his role in covering up years of abuse.
“That’s when Rachel was at her best, in my opinion,” he told the Post. “She was talking to these victims and saying that, yes, it’s a terrible thing. She talked down their rage and helped them with a very bad time.”
Reaves also described Mitchell as highly empathetic and said that he was stunned to learn that she had been chosen to question Kavanaugh and Ford this week.
“I remember her being so supportive of the sex abuse victims,” he said. “To find out that she was going to be the person to question a sex abuse victim on behalf of the GOP — I was taken aback.”
Mitchell has not entirely avoided controversy during her 26-year career at the county attorney’s office. In 2003, the Phoenix New Times reported that her office had declined to prosecute a man accused of physically abusing his quadriplegic wife. At the time, Mitchell said that it would be difficult to prove what happened, and that her office wouldn’t take a case if there wasn’t a likelihood that it would result in a successful prosecution. She also questioned the credibility of the alleged victim, who had initially denied that she was being abused and then changed her story after filing for divorce.
In 2011, Mitchell’s office again faced criticism after a former Jehovah’s Witness elder was offered a plea agreement that allowed him to spend only six months in jail, which the New Times described as a “slap on the wrist.” At the time, Mitchell said the alleged victim’s claims would be difficult to prove in court because he wasn’t able to pin down the specific dates on which the alleged abuse took place.
In her new role, she faces immense scrutiny. Democrats and others who side with Kavanaugh’s accuser will be looking for evidence that Mitchell favors the Supreme Court nominee. But those who believe that the judge is telling the truth are also likely to criticize the veteran prosecutor if they feel she’s not pointed enough in her questioning of the alleged victim.
Reaves, the former Arizona Republic reporter, predicts that neither group will be pleased.
“She’s going to be so good that both sides are going to have problems with her,” he said.
Farzan writes for the Washington Post.