WASHINGTON, Sept 27 (Reuters) - A university professor detailed her allegations that Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, sexually assaulted her 36 years ago during a momentous Senate hearing on Thursday that could determine whether he will be confirmed to the lifetime job after a pitched political battle.
Christine Blasey Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee that during the alleged incident at a gathering of teenagers when she and Kavanaugh were high school students in Maryland that she thought Kavanaugh was going to rape her and perhaps accidentally kill her.
While some Republicans and Trump have said called the allegations by Ford and two other women against Kavanaugh part of a smear campaign, Ford told the committee, "I am an independent person and I am no pawn."
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.
Ford and Kavanaugh, a conservative federal appeals court judge picked by Trump in July for a lifetime job on the high court, were the only two witnesses scheduled for the Judiciary Committee. Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual misconduct by two other women as well. He has denied all the allegations.
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"I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified. I am here because I believe it is my civic duty to tell you what happened to me while Brett Kavanaugh and I were in high school," Ford said, reading from her prepared testimony, her voice breaking with emotion.
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, 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.
"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 were "drunkenly laughing during the attack."
Ford said that when she tried to yell out, he put his hand over her mouth. She said she was able to escape when Kavanaugh and another boy she said was in the room fell off the bed.
Rachel Mitchell, the sex crimes prosecutor hired by Republicans to query Ford, opened her questioning by sympathizing with Ford. "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," Ford said.
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Republican Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee, said at the opening of the hearing that he wanted it to be "safe comfortable and dignified for both of our witnesses." He decried the "media circus" around the allegations against Kavanaugh and said the nominee and Ford had been through a terrible couple of weeks since Ford leveled her accusation.
"What they have endured ought to be considered by all of us as unacceptable and a poor reflection on the state of civility in our democracy," Grassley said. "So I want to apologize to you both for the way you've been treated."
"I lament how this hearing has come about," he added, noting that Ford's allegations emerged only after Kavanaugh's original confirmation hearing earlier this month was over. Grassley said it was up to the Senate to assess the credibility of Kavanaugh and Ford.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, said in her opening statement that sexual violence is a serious problem in the United States "and one that goes largely unseen." She thanked Ford for coming forward and referenced the #MeToo movement.
'RUSH TO JUDGMENT'
"What I find most inexcusable is this rush to judgment, the unwillingness to take these kinds of allegations at face value and look at them for what they are: a real question of character for someone who is asking for a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court," Feinstein said.
Feinstein said Ford should be treated with more respect than Anita Hill, who in 1991 accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas was ultimately confirmed by the Senate and still sits on the court.
The all-male Republican majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee has hired Mitchell to question Ford. Democratic senators are set to ask their own questions.
Under questioning by Feinstein, Ford said she has suffered from claustrophobia and anxiety as a result of her experience and initially struggled when at college.
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.
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. Committee member Jeff Flake is among these.
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.
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.
Two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick, have also 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, whose allegations emerged on Wednesday, said she witnessed efforts by Kavanaugh and others to get girls drunk at parties so that they could be raped. She also said Kavanaugh was present at a 1982 party at which 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 and Kevin Drawbaugh)