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Top prosecutor enters race for county attorney after calling on Allister Adel to step down

Rachel Mitchell says colleagues 'agonized' over a February letter questioning Adel's sobriety.

PHOENIX — One of the Maricopa County prosecutors who called on Allister Adel to step down as county attorney is speaking out for the first time as she runs to replace Adel. 

"It was personally hard. It was professionally hard. It was risky," Rachel Mitchell said Wednesday of the February letter to Adel signed by five of her division chiefs.

The prosecutors "agonized over what was the right thing to do," Mitchell said. "I still believe it's the right thing."

Mitchell filed a statement of interest Wednesday to run in August's Republican primary for county attorney. Four other Republicans have also entered the race. 

Adel's resignation, effective Friday, will end a 2 1/2-year tenure plagued by personal and professional crises. 

Adel revealed last September that she was an alcoholic and was dealing with an eating disorder. Her deputies had come to question her sobriety on the job and frequent absence from the office.

"If you're not present to guide and to set a vision and to communicate that vision and be engaged on a daily basis, that is a huge, huge deficit,"  Mitchell said.

Joined Office Out of Law School

Mitchell joined the county attorney's office 30 years ago, straight of law school at  Arizona State University. 

She made her name as a sex-crimes prosecutor but has held high-profile positions in the nation's third-largest prosecutorial office.

Mitchell currently oversees the prosecution of death-penalty, homicide and gang cases. She investigated the county attorney's now-dismissed prosecutions of Black Lives Matter protesters. 

For a brief time, Mitchell was acting county attorney, before Adel was appointed to the job in late 2019. 

RELATED: County Attorney Allister Adel announces resignation

Key Role at Kavanaugh Hearing

And in 2018, Mitchell was at the center of the national controversy over Brett Kavanaugh's U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearing. 

The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee brought in Mitchell to question Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford about her allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in the 1980s.

Here are four takeaways from my conversation with Mitchell:

1. Controversies over the last few years have obscured the county attorney's office mission. How do you define it?

"This office is the main prosecution office in Maricopa County. If a loved one is killed by a drunk driver, we prosecute that. If a child is victimized, either physically or sexually, we prosecute that.

If somebody is murdered, we prosecute that. That is the business that we are to be about. And we need to get back to talking about that, and what we can do to seek justice for people."

BLM Cases 'A Stain To This Day'

2. In her role with the office's prosecution integrity unit, Mitchell said she recommended that the county attorney drop felony gang charges against 15 Black Lives Matter protesters. How big a stain on the office was that wrongful prosecution?

"It continues to be a stain to this day... On a daily basis, it affects morale... The worst nightmare for a prosecutor is to convict somebody that is innocent. And prosecutors want to do the right thing. But more importantly, it's affected the community's perception of our office, and as somebody who's dedicated 30 years of my career to that office, that's not acceptable to me."

Who was to blame?

"It was a perfect storm of things. But ultimately, responsibility has to stop at the top."

RELATED: Voters will get to pick county attorney to finish Allister Adel's term

'Overwhelmed by the Numbers'

3. The county attorney's office allowed more than 180 criminal misdemeanor cases, which include domestic violence and drunken driving, to go unreviewed before the statute of limitations expired. The cases were then dropped. How did that happen?   

"It happens when you have an office that is drastically low in staff and just overwhelmed by the numbers. And there's no clear path forward to getting additional people or prioritizing. It's a leadership issue.

"We've seen an uptick in crime and violent crime... and then we're 20% down in prosecutors. We can't pick and choose what comes through that door. Everything that is submitted to us, falls on us. We have to review it. And we need to find a way to do that."

No Regrets About Kavanaugh Role

4. Do you regret taking on the role of questioner at Brett Kavanaugh's U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 2018?

"I understand that people might question that. But when I was in law school, I watched with great interest the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. And I still remember the questions that Anita Hill was asked. She was asked questions like, 'Are you a scorned woman?' and that sort of thing.

"I have spent 25 years of my career handling crimes against children. And a large part of that is helping to develop the course that we use statewide to teach people how to properly interview victims of these types of offenses.

"(The Senate Judiciary Committee) sought me out to ask questions of (Christine Blasey Ford) that were respectful, and responsible, meaning properly phrased questions. And so with that, in my background, having watched the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, when I got that opportunity, yes, I took it. And I don't regret that.

"At the end of the hearing, as is my practice, I went up to shake the attorneys' hands, the attorneys who represented Dr. Ford. And as I was moving from one attorney to the other, Dr. Ford reached out and took my hand. And she said, 'Thank you.' And I think that says a lot." 

Six Other Candidates in Race

In addition to  Mitchell, six other candidates have filed statements of interest in the county's attorney's race:

There are four other Republicans: Anni Foster, Gov. Doug  Ducey's top lawyer; Gina Godbehere, a Goodyear city prosecutor; Chandler attorney Stephen Walker; and Austin Woods, an attorney and son of former  Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who died last year.

Julie Gunnigle is the only Democrat who's entered the race. She lost to Adel by less than 2 percentage points in their 2020 matchup.

Libertarian Michael Kielsky is also running.

Candidates have less than two weeks, before the April 4 deadline, to gather more than 4,000 valid signatures to get their names on the ballot.

RELATED: Brnovich demands Allister Adel explain why charges weren't filed

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