Former Sex Crimes Prosecutor On Kavanaugh Hearing

Sep 27, 2018
Originally published on September 27, 2018 11:15 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is going to be a dramatic day on Capitol Hill. Christine Blasey Ford, a 51-year-old professor and mother of two, will describe a night 36 years ago when, as a high school student, she says the Supreme Court nominee assaulted her. That nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, will strongly deny the accusations today as both testify under oath. But even as this hearing gets started, more accounts have surfaced implicating Kavanaugh in sexual misconduct, including an anonymous letter accusing him of drunkenly assaulting a woman after they'd left a bar in Washington back in 1998. Rachel Mitchell, a sex crimes prosecutor in the state of Arizona, will lead the questioning of both Kavanaugh and Ford.

We are joined in our studios this morning by Cynthia Schnedar. She's a former sex crimes prosecutor and former deputy inspector general who worked in the Justice Department under the Obama administration, also the administration of George W. Bush. Thank you so much for coming in this morning.

CYNTHIA SCHNEDAR: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So the Republicans hired Ms. Mitchell in an attempt to depoliticize this process. That's how Chairman Chuck Grassley described his decision. Do you think it's the right one?

SCHNEDAR: It's a difficult question because it is a special situation where you want to treat both the victim and the one person accused of the assault with respect and have some experience in how to ask these questions. However, this isn't a typical trial. It's really more of a setting that is for the senators to decide a question. And they're not going to have time to really dive into it and uncover the facts as you would in a trial.

MARTIN: So how does she go about this work? I mean, what kinds of questions will she ask since this is different than a trial. It is an altogether different beast. What's the line of questioning?

SCHNEDAR: Is she going to treat it like a grand jury examination where she asks open-ended questions designed to elicit facts, or will she treat it like a trial where you are presenting a story you already know and you are cross-examining witnesses to bring out facts that support your case? All indications are that she will try to ask open-ended questions. She will try to treat the victim with respect.

MARTIN: So ideally, she would get to question both Kavanaugh and Ford. I mean, in the case of Christine Blasey Ford - I mean, what are the particular sensitivities to trying to elicit information from someone who claims to have been a victim of sexual assault, especially 30 years ago?

SCHNEDAR: First of all, in understanding that it is very difficult to bring these allegations forward - and it can be painful and scary. And there are reasons why women don't come forward. So every sex crimes prosecutor understands that and will treat the situation with respect and not question the decision that you didn't bring it forward but rather try to find any corroboration that still exists, which is very difficult given the passage of time. Nevertheless, you don't criticize for not bringing forward. But you try to find what corroboration still exists.

MARTIN: What can she do that senators wouldn't be able to do?

SCHNEDAR: Really, the senators could ask these questions as well. I think some of it may be that they're not comfortable asking these questions. And so that's why they've turned to someone who's trained to ask these types of questions.

MARTIN: Comfortable how?

SCHNEDAR: Well, some - you know, the senators - the Republican senators are saying that they feel they want someone who's trained to ask questions that dive into delicate situations. You have to talk about body parts and things like that. And so, perhaps, that's why. Perhaps, it's also they're afraid of messing up and not appearing to be sensitive to the victim.

MARTIN: What are the particular challenges or perils of this setting? It's televised. I mean, not only is she serving as kind of a proxy for these senators, there's a huge national audience in a very politicized moment.

SCHNEDAR: Yes. I think, that all eyes will be on Ms. Mitchell this morning as she does this questioning. And she, I think, will draw upon her years of experience in the courtroom, focus in on the witness and try to have a one-on-one conversation where she asks questions in an open-ended manner, trying to uncover what actually happened and have an opportunity to actually hear from the victim herself as she tells her story of what happened.

MARTIN: The senators are given five minutes, if they want to use them, to ask questions of Ford and Kavanaugh. Does that undermine what she's trying to do if she is trying to lay out a particular argument or tell a particular story? Is there a risk that when the senators get their chance, it will undermine what she's trying to do?

SCHNEDAR: Yes. It's a very unusual situation because it's going to be five minutes for one side and five minutes for the next side, back and forth, back and forth. Normally, you have someone who has an uninterrupted opportunity to ask questions, get a flow, try to tell the story. And this is going to be a little bit harder and choppier. And also how many questions is she coming up with herself - Ms. Mitchell - and how much is she obligated to ask questions that each senator directs her to ask? And so that may also affect her narrative or her ability to bring out a narrative.

MARTIN: What else are you going to be looking for today?

SCHNEDAR: So credibility is something that we all judge for ourselves, ultimately, at the end of the day. When prosecutors pick juries, you know that you bring those experiences to the courtroom or to the hearing room with you. And so I think it's really a chance just to hear from them, to hear how sincere do each of the witnesses sound as they are talking and to get a sense of who they are personally. And then people will then take that back and judge that for themselves, not only the senators but also the American public who will be watching.

MARTIN: Judging someone's sincerity - that can be a subjective process.

SCHNEDAR: Subjective and individual - people will come to different conclusions today based upon what they hear.

MARTIN: Cynthia Schnedar - former sex crimes prosecutor, former deputy inspector general at the Department of Justice - thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

SCHNEDAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.