Christine Blasey Ford, the California psychologist who told a Senate committee Thursday that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her decades ago when they were both teenagers, appeared credible as she recounted her harrowing ordeal, legal specialists said.
“The #MeToo movement is terribly compelling, but I’m not someone who thinks every accusation is true,” said Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who teaches at Harvard Law. “I also don’t believe every accusation is false. So I could not say from [prior] press accounts, ‘oh, I believe it.’ But after today, I can say that.”
Gertner cited several factors that she said bolstered Ford’s credibility, including her consistency about the gaps in her memory of the alleged assault dating back to the 1980s.
“What she doesn’t remember, that doesn’t change,” Gertner said. “She’s not trying to gild the lily as she’s going through her testimony. She remembers certain things and has not stopped remembering those things.”
Gertner said the science around trauma shows that it sometimes “obfuscates your memory, and sometimes trauma enhances it. The clarity of her testimony and her affect make it clearer to me that this was seared into her memory.”
The former judge noted that Ford framed her decision to come forward around “wanting to be helpful” and said Kavanaugh’s shifting accounts of his youthful behavior and drinking suggest his account is now “moving closer to hers.”
Kavanaugh has adamantly denied assaulting Ford. He testified later on Thursday. Gertner said Kavanaugh “made clear his partisanship” in his testimony and “that’s inconsistent with the position he wants.”
“He played to his base and a judge shouldn’t have a base,” she said. “And who is his base? President Trump.”
Gertner said Kavanaugh’s reputation has been “irretrievably tainted” and that if he cared about the Supreme Court as an institution, he would withdraw his nomination. His appointment could undermine the court, she said.
“He doesn’t seem to care,” she said.
Rosanna Cavallaro, a Suffolk Law professor and former state assistant attorney general, said she found Ford “exceptionally credible” during her testimony.
“She came across like somebody’s mom,” said Cavallaro, who also worked in the office of famed defense attorney Alan Dershowitz. “[During] the most troubling part of her narrative, the part describing [the alleged assault] in detail, her voice was choked up and catching in a way that seemed very genuine.”
Ford’s overall demeanor, Cavallaro said, was “unpolished in a way that was very genuine and authentic. It made you want to not see her cry.” Polish from witnesses in such settings, she said, is often viewed as a “red flag.”
“When someone doesn’t miss a beat . . . a flatness to the delivery suggests that it’s fake and practiced,” Cavallaro said. “She’s the opposite.”
Kavanaugh’s testimony, on the other hand, made it appear as if he had been instructed to change his tone from “humble and lovable to outraged and victimized,” said Cavallaro.
She thought Kavanaugh’s appearance was intended to “create an illusion of process.” She thought his hearing was “completely rigged to prevent any meaningful fact-finding.”
“If they wanted real fact finding, they would have re-opened the FBI investigation,” she said.
Others also criticized the structure of Thursday’s hearings.
William D. Kickham, a defense attorney who has offices in Boston and Westwood, criticized the format of the hearing.
. He said there was almost no cross-examination of Ford. He thought Ford was not questioned to the degree “required with what the accusation presented.”
“I say this not unsympathetic of any victim of sexual violence, I am not unsympathetic to anyone who claims that, but in order to ferret out the truth there must be a vigorous process of examination and, critically, cross examination, of an alleged victim,” said Kickham. “Otherwise what is it? The answer to that is uncorroborated accusations.”
He thought the testimony of both Ford and Kavanaugh was “extremely compelling and moving.”
But he found the decision of Senate Republicans to bring in Arizona prosecutor Rachel Mitchell was “troubling from a legal and due process perspective.”
Mitchell questioned both Ford and Kavanaugh. Kickham thought Senate Republicans “buckled under the weight of political correctness” by having Mitchell handle their questions.
“Half the committee should not have been gagged,” he said.
Democrats, he said, were able to question Kavanaugh as they wished.“How could anyone perceive that to be fair and equitable?” he asked.
Janice Bassil, a veteran Boston defense attorney whose clients have included Aaron Hernandez’s fiancée and defendants in high-profile sexual assault cases, also concluded Ford was credible.
“I thought she did excellent. I thought [she] was very believable,’’ Bassil said. “She was clear about what she remembered — and what she didn’t. She didn’t try to exaggerate . . . She wasn’t overly dramatic.”
Bassil said the purpose of some questions posed by special counsel Rachel Mitchell were not clear to her.
Bassil, recalling Anita Hill’s testimony during the Clarence Thomas hearings, said she expects the Senate will ultimately confirm Kavanaugh to the lifetime appointment, Ford’s credible account notwithstanding.
“Misogyny runs deep and it’s deepest in Washington, D.C.,’’ Bassil said. “Am I cynical? Yes.”
Bassil thought Kavanaugh came off as entitled.
“I think his premises is he’s entitled to it and he’s being taken from him,” she said of the Supreme Court seat.
She thought his tears did not come across as genuine, and found his recounting of his daughter suggesting to include Ford in the family’s prayers “a bit much.”
“Look, if I were representing him in a criminal case and the standard was beyond a reasonable doubt, I’m sure I would have been pleased with this, but this isn’t a criminal trial,” she said.
She added that if Kavanaugh was her client, she would have advised him to “tone down the anger.”
“Anger doesn’t really get your point across,” she said.
Kavanaugh’s suggestion that part of the reason behind the sexual misconduct allegations is a revenge plot “on behalf of the Clintons” is ridiculous, said Bassil.
In the 1990s, Kavanaugh was on the team that investigated President Bill Clinton as part of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s investigation. The report led to Clinton’s impeachment, though he was not removed from office.
Cavallaro, also addressing the issue of confirmation, said there are important distinctions between a Supreme Court confirmation hearing and a criminal trial.
“There’s a different burden of proof when you’re giving him the best job in the country versus the burden of proof when you’re taking away someone’s liberty and putting them in prison, or kicking them off campus,” Cavallaro said. “People have been really blurring those two lines, and they shouldn’t.”
Mark J. Geragos, a prominent criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles whose client roster has included Michael Jackson and Chris Brown, also said he found Ford believable.
“She does seem credible and this format is welcoming to her testimony,” Geragos wrote in an e-mail. Asked what stood out about Ford’s testimony, Geragos cited the “level of detail and the trauma” she displayed.
He also said the “ ‘cross’ [examination] has been ineffectual.”
Kavanaugh, he said, was at times forceful and at times unhinged.
“There’s a fine line between being aggrieved and emotional and belligerent and unfortunately he crossed into belligerence,” he said.
A Kavanaugh rant about his drinking habits as a teen was “unbelievable,” said Geragos.
“It’s hard to think this is where we’ve devolved to with the Supreme Court,” he said.