In a day that riveted the nation, Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford of Palo Alto University and the Stanford University School of Medicine, provided testimony in a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Laffey, Bucci & Kent’s Stewart Ryan Featured On Expert Panel
To cover the hearings, the Philadelphia Inquirer gathered a panel of sexual assault and legal experts, including Laffey, Bucci & Kent’s Stewart Ryan, a trial attorney and former Assistant Chief for the Trials Division of the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office.
For nine hours, Ryan and three expert colleagues watched the hearings joined by Anna Orso, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, providing their commentary on the proceedings.
Sexual Assault Allegations Transfix Nation
Professor Ford made history in September when she came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when the two were teenagers in high school.
According to Ford’s allegations, President Trump’s Supreme Court pick was heavily-intoxicated when he held her down on a bed, covering her mouth to muffle her screams as he groped her on a bed and struggled to pull her clothes off.
Kavanaugh has strongly denied the allegations, as has Mark Judge, a classmate of Kavanaugh who Ford says was present for the alleged incident.
Attorney Praises Courtroom Search For Truth
Over the course of three grueling hours, Doctor Ford, who was calm and composed, answered questions from Senators on the left, while a veteran sex crimes prosecutor stood in for Republican Senators.
“One of the things I think is great about the jury system is that you have 12 people sitting in a box, looking at a witness and using nothing more than their common sense or gut to figure out whether or not someone’s telling the truth,” Ryan says, comparing the hearing proceedings to his considerable experience in the courtroom. “There were a couple moments during Dr. Ford’s testimony,” Ryan continues, “where I felt that.”
Attorney Ryan noted several moments when Dr. Ford’s credibility was put on display, including a point in her testimony when Ford remembered her assailant’s laughing drunkenly during the assault. “I think the most powerful thing she said,” Ryan noted, “was […] in response to Senator Leahy, about her strongest memory being the laughter, because from my perspective, what she was saying in that moment was, leaving aside the trauma and terror of the assault and thinking about the humiliation of having the people who are assaulting her laughing, and that is burned in her memory.”
Overall, Ryan admired Dr. Ford’s wherewithal. “I don’t think there was a single question that she avoided,” Ryan said. “She might not have been able to answer all the questions, but she tried.” The “same” could not be said for Judge Kavanaugh, Ryan continued, referring to the nominee’s apparent inability to answer all of the questions posed to him.
Kavanaugh’s demeanor was unvarnished and unbridled; he often responded to questions with outbursts of emotion, a fact that Ryan says “goes to [Kavanaugh’s] credibility.” Ryan found Kavanaugh’s opening remarks particularly credible; “it was a powerful speech,” the attorney says.
At the same time, Ryan thought that the Judge’s unconcealed displays of anger and disbelief were “appropriate for the circumstances.” “His whole life is being examined,” Ryan noted, highlighting the extraordinary emotional circumstances under which both Kavanuagh and Ford provided their testimony.
Sexual Assault Lawyer Notes Challenges Of Remembering Trauma
Ryan also commented on the character of memory in sexual assault cases.
After being asked why Ford could remember some details surrounding the assault with clarity, but could not remember where the incident took place, Ryan said, “something like that, not remembering how you got home is something that I saw frequently, and I think if there’s someone who doesn’t understand the science behind it, you would say, ‘Well, how could you not remember how you got home?’ Whereas if you brought someone educated in that field to help, that makes a huge difference.”
Preparation Is Key To Sexual Assault Trial Proceedings
Ryan also spent time commenting on the rigors of cross-examination in the courtroom. Asked about the phenomenon of “retraumatization,” in which victims of sexual assault experience terror, anxiety and panic anew in recounting their traumatic experiences, Ryan put an emphasis on preparation.
“Preparation is so important,” Ryan said. “You try your best to tell [survivors] what’s coming. I also as a matter of course for every single of trial, I have tried my best to get the person into the courtroom and sit them in the chair and ask them questions.” During her opening remarks, Dr. Ford described “re-living” her trauma in front of the world.
The hearing itself, however, was a disappointment for Ryan. “I had a hope,” the attorney said, “that maybe there would be some independence, and I think having observed thus far what I’ve seen, it’s nothing more than the political theater that a lot of people expected.”
Judge’s Confirmation Divides Nation
The allegations against Judge Kavanaugh have rocked an already-contentious Supreme Court nomination process, posing a challenge to Democrat and Republican Senators alike. As Ryan notes, the sexual assault allegations have become highly-politicized, with Congress members on both sides of the debate exploiting an opportunity to score points with their respective bases.
The hearing, too, seemed to mirror the increasing polarization of the American political landscape. Democrats took the opportunity to strike out at their Republican colleagues, while Republicans appeared satisfied to use the occasion to accuse their counterparts on the left of gamesmanship.
Ryan Criticizes “Disruptive” Hearing Structure
The hearing structure was also not ideal, Ryan says. Republicans at the hearing were represented during questioning by Rachel Mitchell, an experienced sex crimes prosecutor, who spent her allotted time walking Dr. Ford through a lengthy set of questions on the allegations, eliciting as many details as possible about how the allegations arose. But Mitchell’s line of questioning was interrupted at 5-minute intervals so that Democratic senators could ask their own questions.
It was a disjointed affair, Ryan says, that prevented both the prosecutor and the Senators from being able to “build a little rapport” with Dr. Ford. “Just talking to someone to get them comfortable” is important, Ryan noted.
“I don’t think it can be understated […] and I appreciate what the prosecutor started with, just wanting to get sort of a baseline for easier statements and make sure they’re accurate, but I think the way to start something like that is to just have a conversation. But, and I’m not criticizing, it doesn’t seem like the process is allowing [the prosecutor] to be that…it’s disruptive.”
Ryan elaborated, after asking what he meant by a conversation. “When I speak to people, I’m trying very hard for us to not just jump right into what occurred. I literally just ask people about their background, telling them about my background…I think that’s a tremendous way to start speaking to a survivor.”
Embattled Supreme Court Pick Faces FBI Investigation
Much of the hearing focused on whether or not the FBI should begin an investigation into the allegations. As we now know, the White House has approved such an investigation. Thanks to Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), who is widely-considered a swing vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination, President Trump has authorized the FBI to contact both Dr. Ford and Deborah Ramirez, a second woman who has accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.
In a hearing on Friday, September 28, 2018, one day after the testimony of Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh, Flake told his colleagues that he would only vote to introduce the nomination for a floor vote on the understanding that the FBI would conduct a one-week investigation of the sexual assault allegations. The investigation is now ongoing; it is expected to be completed on Friday, October 5, 2018.