WASHINGTON, Sept 27 (Reuters) - A university professor on Thursday said she was "100 percent" certain that Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, sexually assaulted her 36 years ago, telling a dramatic U.S. Senate hearing she feared he would rape and perhaps accidentally kill her.
Christine Blasey Ford, her voice sometimes cracking with emotion, appeared in public for the first time to detail her allegation against Kavanaugh, a conservative federal appeals court judge chosen for a lifetime job on the top U.S. court. He also faces allegations of sexual misconduct by two other women.
Kavanaugh was due to testify later in the day before the Judiciary Committee in a momentous hearing that could determine whether he will be confirmed by the Senate after a pitched political battle between Trump's fellow Republicans and Democrats who oppose the nominee. Kavanaugh has denied the allegations by all three women.
RELATED: Ford testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh.
"With what degree of certainty do you believe Brett Kavanaugh assaulted you?" Democratic Senator Richard Durbin asked Ford.
"One hundred percent," she replied, remaining firm and unruffled through hours of testimony even under questioning by a sex crimes prosecutor hired by the committee's Republicans.
Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University in California, said a drunken Kavanaugh attacked her and tried to remove her clothing at a gathering of teenagers in Maryland when he was 17 years old and she was 15 in 1982.
Ford said "absolutely not" when Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked her if it could be a case of mistaken identity, as Kavanaugh has suggested.
The hearing, which has riveted Americans and intensified the political polarization in the United States, occurred against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.
"I have found your testimony powerful and credible and I believe you," Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told Ford.
While some Republicans and Trump have called the allegations by Ford and the two other women against Kavanaugh part of a smear campaign, Ford told the committee, "I am an independent person and I am no pawn."
Ford was seated at a table in the packed hearing room flanked by her lawyers, facing a bank of senators. Cameras from news photographers clicked as she entered the room and took her seat, smiling nervously. Ford told the senators she was "terrified" to testify but felt it was her civic duty come forward. The audience at the hearing remained in rapt attention.
"Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time because he was very inebriated and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit under my clothing. I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help," Ford said, adding that Kavanaugh and a friend of his, Mark Judge, were "drunkenly laughing during the attack."
Democratic senators sought to score political points during their five minutes apiece of questioning Ford. The panel's Republican senators, all men, did not question her, assigning that task to Rachel Mitchell, a sex crimes prosecutor.
While Mitchell sought to probe Ford's account including any gaps in her story, her questioning seemed disjointed. She took turns with the Democratic senators to ask questions in five-minute segments, disrupting her flow.
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"The first thing that struck me from your statement this morning was that you are terrified. And I just wanted to let you know, I'm very sorry. That's not right," Mitchell said.
Supreme Court appointments must be confirmed by the Senate, and Trump's fellow Republicans control the chamber by a narrow 51-49 margin. That means that a handful of moderate Republican senators who have not announced whether or not they support Kavanaugh could determine his fate.
The committee could vote on Kavanaugh's confirmation on Friday, with a final Senate vote early next week.
Some Democrats have called on Kavanaugh to withdraw in light of the allegations.
'TERRIFIED ME THE MOST'
Ford said Kavanaugh put his hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming during the assault, adding, "This was what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me."
Ford said she has suffered from claustrophobia and anxiety as a result of her experience and initially struggled when at college.
Her strongest memory of the incident, Ford said, was the "uproarious laughter between the two (Kavanaugh and Judge) and their having fun at my expense." She said the laughter has haunted her ever since.
The controversy has unfolded just weeks ahead of the Nov. 6 congressional elections in which Democrats are trying to seize control of Congress from Trump's fellow Republicans. Kavanaugh's confirmation would cement conservative control of the high court as Trump moves to shift it and the broader federal judiciary to the right.
Falling back on her own professional expertise, Ford fended off Mitchell's questions about her memories by explaining the biological underpinnings of memory formation and what factors can prompt anxiety.
Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee who strongly supported Kavanaugh during confirmation hearings earlier in the month, declined to give his views on Ford's testimony.
"I shouldn't comment until we're all done and maybe not comment until I've slept on it," Grassley told reporters during a break.
Feinstein said Ford should be treated with more respect during the hearing than Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, was treated. Thomas was ultimately confirmed by the Senate and still sits on the court.
In his prepared testimony, Kavanaugh again "unequivocally and categorically" denied her allegation, as well as "other false and uncorroborated accusations" by his other accusers.
"Sexual assault is horrific. It is morally wrong. It is illegal. It is contrary to my religious faith. And it contradicts the core promise of this nation that all people are created equal and entitled to be treated with dignity and respect," Kavanaugh said.
Two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in the 1980s.
Ramirez accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself during a drunken dormitory party during the 1983-84 academic year when both attended Yale University.
Swetnick said she witnessed efforts by Kavanaugh and others to get girls drunk at parties so they could be raped. She said Kavanaugh was present at a 1982 party where she was raped.
Trump chose Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired effective in July.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung, Amanda Becker, Richard Cowan, Makini Brice and Susan Heavey Editing by Will Dunham