Today Rachel Mitchell, a career prosecutor who has worked in Maricopa County, Arizona, since 1993, is interviewing Christine Blasey Ford on behalf of the Republican Party. Since her role was first announced, Mitchell has been the subject of intense national scrutiny, though she has declined to speak publicly about her role in today’s interview. Mitchell, a Republican, has called investigating sex crimes her “life’s work.” Most of what we know about her positions, in her own words, come from an interview with FrontLine magazine, a publication associated with the Foundations Baptist Fellowship International targeted at the Religious Right. In the interview, she offers support for the victims most often supported, particularly in recent years, by conservatives: the very young.
Mitchell is on leave from her current role as the county’s deputy attorney and chief of its Special Victims Division. Prior to that, she spent 12 years running the bureau responsible for prosecuting sex crimes, including child molestation and sexual assault. The FrontLine article, like many right-wing discussions of sexual violence, focuses on the innocence of young children in assault cases and clergy scandals: “False accusations are very rare,” said Mitchell. In her first major case, Mitchell sentenced the Reverend Paul LeBrun to 111 years in prison for molesting boys in the 1980s. This week, FrontLine wrote on its blog that false accusations do happen, in the context of #MeToo.
Since her career became the subject of national attention, two failures have been repeatedly mentioned: In 2003, Mitchell’s office was criticized after it declined to prosecute a man for abusing his quadriplegic wife. (The woman went on to write a harrowing memoir about her experience.) In 2011, Mitchell granted a plea deal of only six months to a Jehovah’s Witness who was found guilty of assaulting a teenaged boy. What’s been largely left out of this narrative are the wide-ranging institutional failures of Maricopa County when it has come to reporting, investigating, and prosecuting sexual assault, particularly when reported in Latinx and immigrant communities.
Mitchell has worked under several different bosses, and the stark failures of the bureaucracies are never the fault of a single person. That said, her career trajectory raises significant questions about her role in advocating for victims and correcting the problems that plagued these offices.
Mitchell was promoted to lead the sex crimes unit in 2005, unseating a longstanding and well-liked prosecutor. The person who promoted her, Andrew Thomas, was then only a week into his tenure. A close ally of Joe Arpaio, America’s most racist sheriff, Thomas used his office to open criminal investigations against his political opponents, especially those who questioned his immigration policies. He was disbarred in 2011 for, among other things, incompetence, erroneously pursuing civil and criminal cases without probable cause and, in one case, forcing a sheriff to swear to a false affidavit.
Mitchell’s next boss, Bill Montgomery, has held the office since a special election in 2010. He’s been giving glowing endorsements of Mitchell to the press ahead of her appearance in Washington, DC. As Joe Arpaio’s enforcer, Montgomery aided in the rounding up of immigrants at work sites, charging them with identity fraud, a practice that came to require federal intervention. This year, Montgomery got directly involved in negotiating a plea deal for two women associated with the Patriot Movement who burglarized a mosque. He also quite recently threatened police departments with financial consequences should they not comply with rules he invented about when and under what circumstances they should comply with public records requests.
In 2011, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was the subject of a federal civil rights investigation for discriminatory police practices and, specifically in the case of sex crimes, a failure to investigate or charge incidents reported by immigrants. In the three years leading up to 2007, Arpaio’s office received 400 reports of sex crimes that were either inadequately investigated or not worked at all. “If established, this may constitute a failure to provide police services in a manner that constitutes gender and/or national origin discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection guarantee,” wrote the Department of Civil Rights in its 22-page letter to Bill Montgomery.
Recently, supporters have said that Mitchell was partially responsible for cleaning up this particular mess, going through the cases and deciding which to prosecute. At the end of the re-investigation process, 115 of those cases were determined to be “unfounded;” 221 were cleared without arrest, and only 19 went to the court.
Mitchell and her office did not respond to a request for comment by press time. Though Maricopa County isn’t publishing its clearance rate for sexual assault cases these days, the state of Arizona at large saw a clearance rate of about 10% of sexual assault reports. The nation average is around 34%.